Finals notebook: Birds step up in Game 6 win

Photo: Eric Fowler

📝 by Patrick Williams

Game 1 – COACHELLA VALLEY 5, Hershey 0
Game 2 – COACHELLA VALLEY 4, Hershey 0
Game 3 – HERSHEY 5, Coachella Valley 4 (OT)
Game 4 – HERSHEY 3, Coachella Valley 2
Game 5 – HERSHEY 1, Coachella Valley 0 (OT)
Game 6 – COACHELLA VALLEY 5, Hershey 2
Game 7 – Wednesday at Coachella Valley, 10:00
*if necessary… All times Eastern

PALM DESERT, Calif. … The Firebirds needed a lot more following three consecutive losses in Hershey last week.

They got it, and now they will play one last game for the Calder Cup.

“I don’t think the hockey in Hershey was our best hockey,” head coach Dan Bylsma acknowledged following his club’s 5-2 home win in Game 6 last night.

“I don’t think it was the guys’ best hockey, and we needed everyone to step up in a big way. You see John Hayden step up. You see Kole Lind step up. You see [Cameron Hughes] step up. We got a great effort from a lot of guys, and that was the difference.”

Stepping up is something the Firebirds have done throughout a playoff run that will see them play 26 of a possible 27 games over five rounds. They are 5-0 in elimination games, outscoring opponents 25-11 in those contests. Home-ice success has been another staple for the Firebirds, who have won seven consecutive playoff dates at Acrisure Arena and are 12-3 at home overall.

“The Birds, we just want to play as much hockey as we possibly can,” Bylsma joked. But going deep into a series is something that he has stressed is to the benefit of his team. He said multiple times that the Firebirds had planned to play “420 minutes” this series and that a longer series would favor his club.

With Game 7, they have a chance to win the Calder Cup in their first season of play.

“It’s an unbelievable opportunity to get the job done,” Bylsma said.

It was exactly the start that the Bears wanted.

Seven shots on goal in the first 1:59 of play. A Connor McMichael net-drive goal to open the scoring and finally break onto the scoreboard at Acrisure Arena. The Firebirds scrambling. The capacity crowd quickly growing quiet following raucous pre-game introductions.

But it was the next 48:23 of play that was the problem for Bears head coach Todd Nelson. Hershey managed just eight shots in that span as the Firebirds took over the game, building a 5-2 lead and forcing the Finals to a seventh and deciding game.

The momentum started to swing with Coachella Valley’s first power-play opportunity midway through the first period. The Firebirds needed just 17 seconds to score, and Acrisure Arena had life. Less than seven minutes later, it was 3-1.

“It seems like they score in bunches,” Nelson said. “Our guys have to understand… A goal goes in, it’s right back to work.”

Nelson also pulled starter Hunter Shepard following Coachella Valley’s fifth goal. In Games 1 and 2 when the scores got away from the Bears, Nelson elected to keep Shepard in net. This time, Zach Fucale took over in relief for the second time this postseason.

“He had enough,” Nelson said of the decision. “Get him rested up.”