Finals notebook: One last comeback brings Cup to Bears

Photo: Katie Fri

📝 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 – Hershey 3, COACHELLA VALLEY 2 (OT)

PALM DESERT, Calif. … Game 7 of the Calder Cup Finals, and the Hershey Bears trailed 2-0 late in the second period.

Coachella Valley Firebirds goaltender Joey Daccord again looked like his usual stout self. Fans packing Acrisure Arena made it difficult, if not impossible, to hear at times.

Then came goals 3:17 apart from a pair of Washington Capitals first-round picks in Connor McMichael and Hendrix Lapierre. The Bears had life again.

Tied 2-2, the teams traded chance after chance through the third period and overtime. If fatigue had become a factor, it certainly did not show. Acrisure Arena by that point was standing-room only — literally. Andrew Poturalski nearly ended the series for the Firebirds with a between-the-legs move that Hunter Shepard managed to stop.

Then Mike Vecchione swatted in a loose rebound, and it was over. The Bears had their AHL-record 12th Calder Cup title.

Despite having been shut out in the first two games of the series, and despite scoring just five goals in four games on the road during the Finals, the Bears lifted the Calder Cup at center ice. Hershey won four of the last five games, all by a single goal and three of them in overtime.

Last night was the fourth time in the postseason that the Bears won a game it had trailed, 2-0. They did it once in each round, against Charlotte, Hartford, Rochester and finally Coachella Valley.

Even veterans like captain Dylan McIlrath and Aaron Ness struggled to put all of this into context as they stood on the ice with their families celebrating. McIlrath won the 2017 Calder Cup with the Grand Rapids Griffins playing for current Hershey head coach Todd Nelson. For Ness, this will be the first time his name goes on the Calder Cup.

“We knew we were capable,” McIlrath said of the Bears’ Game 7 comeback. “We obviously hadn’t shown much of it in this building yet. We’ve been doing it all year, coming from behind. Two goals didn’t mean anything to us. I’m just so proud of this group.”

Said Ness, “It was incredible. This group’s awesome. I love these guys. We’re linked now for life.”

Nelson now has won four Calder Cups, including one as an assistant coach and one as a player.

“They never get old,” Nelson said. “Your first one’s always special because you weren’t a champion yet. This feels really good. I’m so proud of my hockey team. These guys stuck together. We were a really close-knit group, so I’m just happy that I’m able to share this moment with them.”

Firebirds head coach Dan Bylsma has seen the top of the hockey world.

The Stanley Cup. The Winter Olympics. The IIHF World Hockey Championship.

But even Bylsma struggled to remain composed following last night’s painful Game 7 loss. One of the most memorable campaigns in AHL history had ended one goal shy of the Calder Cup. It was a season that came complete with two months on the road to begin the season, 48 regular-season wins and 103 points, five rounds of Calder Cup Playoff hockey stretching two months and 26 games, and a market with no pro hockey history falling in love with the game and their own team.

For as much joy can be found from the winning team, the other side’s pain and disappointment is always jarring by comparison. Seeing the bigger picture is something that must wait.

“I said to the guys post-game, nothing at this point in time that I’m going to say to them is going to assuage the bitter disappointment of losing this game,” Bylsma said, composing his thoughts afterward. “I’m just extremely proud of our group, the way they competed all year long, the way they put themselves in a position to be where we’re at.”

Bylsma reached back to one of hockey’s most famous quotes. Fred Shero delivered it to his players before his Philadelphia Flyers won the Stanley Cup for the first time in 1974.

The Firebirds will have to wait at least one more year for another chance at the Calder Cup, but they have built a foundation for this team and this market.

“Freddie Shero said, ‘You win today, and you walk together forever,’” Bylsma said. “We didn’t win today, but this team, this group of guys, is a special group, and they will walk together forever.”