Finals notebook: Birds readying for visit to Bears’ den

Photo: Mike Zitek

📝 by Patrick Williams

Game 1 – COACHELLA VALLEY 5, Hershey 0
Game 2 – COACHELLA VALLEY 4, Hershey 0
Game 3 – Tuesday at Hershey, 7:00
Game 4 – Thursday at Hershey, 7:00
*Game 5 – Saturday at Hershey, 7:00
*Game 6 – June 19 at Coachella Valley, 10:00
*Game 7 – June 21 at Coachella Valley, 10:00
*if necessary… All times Eastern

PALM DESERT, Calif.Dan Bylsma did not want to go there before Game 2.

After his Firebirds’ 4-0 win last night, however, Bylsma could touch the topic.

“It was critical getting the two here at home,” the veteran Coachella Valley head coach said. “They win, they’re going home with three games to turn the tide in the series.”

Hershey went 23-9-2-2 at Giant Center in the regular season, a .694 performance that ranked them fourth in the AHL. While not all of Bylsma’s players have played in Hershey, he remembers Giant Center well from his days with the rival Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins.

“We may not know it yet, but we’re going to a place where it’s a really hostile environment,” he said. “It’s a great place to have a hockey game.”

Leading the best-of-seven Calder Cup Finals two games to none gives the Firebirds a bit more breathing room. They will make the cross-country flight today and get a chance to settle in before Game 3 on Tuesday night (7 ET, AHLTV).

Coachella Valley has played a league-high 21 games this postseason, including eight in the last 17 days.

Goaltender Joey Daccord is among the handful of Firebirds who have visited Hershey during their days with Eastern Conference clubs. He knows what is ahead of his team, particularly against a Bears club that figures to be even more desperate come Game 3.

“It’s always been a fun atmosphere and a great building,” said Daccord, who is 2-0-0 at Giant Center including a win in his AHL debut with Belleville on Nov. 30, 2019. “I think we can expect to get the same reception they received from our fans. It’s going to be hostile in there. We’ve got to bring our best if we want to have success there.”

Bylsma called forward Cameron Hughes a “gamer” earlier this season.

Hughes came to the Seattle Kraken organization as a free agent last summer following parts of five seasons with Providence. The dependable 26-year-old turned in his usual steady performance in his first spin through the Western Conference, delivering career highs in goals (19), assists (37) and points (56) for Coachella Valley.

But Hughes can also flash some highlight-reel skill, as he did on Coachella Valley’s fourth goal last night.

“He has a knack for coming up with big plays in big moments and big games,” Bylsma said. “We’ve seen him do that for us all year long.

“He has the knack for the ‘ESPN’ moment. I think he’s our only guy who’s gotten on ESPN this year.”

The first period? Five-on-five play?

Hershey head coach Todd Nelson liked those parts of his team’s performance in Game 2.

But tempt the Coachella Valley power play at your own risk. The Bears paid dearly last night, going shorthanded nine times. Jesper Froden’s power-play goal started a four-goal second-period barrage the Firebirds, quickly sending the night off course for Hershey.

“You can’t take stick infractions,” Nelson said. “We can’t take interference penalties. It’s just a matter of time against a team like this. We killed off three penalties in the first period. Sooner or later, they’re going to end up scoring and capitalizing, and that’s what happened.”

The first 20 minutes had started quite well for the Bears. They clearly took in Nelson’s message from a video session Friday and put those lessons into play in the first period, outshooting the Firebirds, 15-5. The forecheck looked solid.

Then came the second period and five Firebirds power plays. That disrupted Nelson’s bench and game flow.

“It’s pretty obvious that the penalties killed us,” Nelson stated. “A lot of players didn’t get a lot of ice time because we were killing penalties. We’ve got to smarten up.”

But at least the first 20 minutes proved that there is a blueprint for disrupting the potent Coachella Valley attack.

“The guys were executing their game plan,” Nelson said of that opening period. “We looked sharper. That’s more who we are. We’ve dug ourselves a bit of a hole, and Game 3 is very important for obvious reasons.”

Nelson said that he toyed with the idea of pulling starter Hunter Shepard in the 5-1 loss in Game 1.

He had to weigh that same decision last night. Trailing 4-0 at the second intermission, it might have been a time to give Zach Fucale some action, but Nelson ultimately decided against it with the Bears having to kill 1:15 of penalty time to begin the third period.

But Nelson did make two lineup changes following Game 1.

Rookie defenseman Vincent Iorio dressed after missing five games with an undisclosed injury, replacing Jake Massie. Another rookie, forward Ethen Frank, drew back in after sitting out the previous two games; Frank led all AHL rookies with 30 goals in the regular season but has gone scoreless through 11 playoff outings. With Frank back in the lineup, Shane Gersich came out.