Finals rematch rife with story lines

Photo: Mike Zitek

Patrick Williams, TheAHL.com Features Writer


Dan Bylsma knows a juicy storyline when he sees it.

It’s mid-June, and Bylsma’s Coachella Valley Firebirds are fighting with their new cross-country rival, the Hershey Bears, for the Calder Cup.

Again.

The AHL’s senior franchise versus its newest. Two fan bases that ranked in the top five of regular-season season attendance. Exciting young prospects and accomplished veterans. A Stanley Cup champion in Bylsma – who will depart for the Seattle Kraken head-coaching job after the series – matched up against his Hershey counterpart Todd Nelson, a four-time Calder Cup winner. Last year’s playoff MVP Hunter Shepard and Chris Driedger, two of the top goalies in the AHL.

The story of last year’s Finals is well documented. The Firebirds opened with back-to-back wins on home ice, shutting out the Bears 5-0 and 4-0. Hershey fought back to take three straight at home, including two overtime victories. Coachella Valley responded with a Game 6 victory back at Acrisure Arena and opened up a 2-0 lead in Game 7. Then goals from Washington Capitals first-round picks Connor McMichael and Hendrix Lapierre tied the game, and Mike Vecchione put away the series at 16:19 of overtime.

It was the Bears’ league-record 12th Calder Cup title. The Firebirds are only in their second season, but they are hungry for a championship of their own.

Pick a storyline. This series has one for every hockey fan. Game 1 goes tonight at Giant Center, and it opens the next chapter of this Firebirds-Bears rivalry.

“The storywriters would tell you that,” Bylsma quipped yesterday following a brisk practice at Giant Center. “Given the history…it feels like the storywriters had us back here a year later.

“We get the rematch.”

The Firebirds, who finished second in the AHL to Hershey in the regular season with 103 points, have pushed past Calgary, Ontario and Milwaukee to get back to the Finals. After dropping their playoff opener against the Wranglers, they spun off nine consecutive wins and come into this series having won 10 of their last 11.

Hershey has taken a much different path, though. After posting 53 regular-season wins and a .771 points percentage, the second-best such mark in AHL history, the Bears rolled to a 9-1 start with series wins over Lehigh Valley and Hartford and a 3-0 lead in the Eastern Conference Finals against Cleveland. But the Monsters pulled Hershey into a fight that nearly ended the Bears’ bid to become repeat champions, taking the next three games and rallying to force overtime in Game 7 (their fourth third-period comeback at Giant Center in the series). Garrett Roe finally vanquished the Monsters in OT to set up the rematch with Coachella Valley.

“I can honestly say that either way it went, we were very fine with it going to overtime in Game 6 and overtime in Game 7,” Bylsma joked. “That’s the journey for them to get [here], and that’s their story. We’ve been kind of hanging out…but when the goal went in, you know our group was watching and we knew we were going to be playing Hershey.”

Both clubs have a different look from last season. For one, standout goaltender Joey Daccord has moved on from the Firebirds to a starting role in Seattle. Taking his place is Driedger, who has been outstanding this postseason. Forward Shane Wright, the fourth overall pick in the 2022 NHL Draft, went through last season’s postseason run before beginning his rookie pro season in the fall. Rookie forwards Logan Morrison and Ryan Winterton have followed up strong regular seasons with playoff contributions. Devin Shore, the Firebirds’ leading playoff scorer, was in Edmonton last season, and defenseman Cale Fleury played just 12 games for Seattle a year ago.

For Hershey, defenseman Chase Priskie, forwards Pierrick Dubé and Alex Limoges, and first-round pick Ivan Miroshnichenko have been key additions. They have heard all of the stories about last season’s championship, and they want to experience it for themselves.

The series with Cleveland was a seven-game war, but for Dubé, who spent last season with the Laval Rocket, his biggest struggle might have come after Game 7. Speaking isn’t easy after losing “five or six” teeth, after all.

Dubé had missed the previous three games after taking an Ethen Frank shot to the face, forced to sit and watch each agonizing loss to the Monsters. The aftermath was gruesome, including extensive oral surgery. But he was not ready to watch his season slip away without being able to help on the ice, and after Game 6 Dubé went to Todd Nelson and told him he was playing Game 7. It seemed to be less a request than a demand from a 23-year-old who went undrafted, had to work his way up from the ECHL, overcome others’ doubts about him (he is 5-foot-9, 172 pounds), and played his first three NHL games this season with Washington.

“I wanted to make a difference,” Dubé said, struggling not to slur his words amid the still all-too-visible dental damage. “We’re playing hockey for these moments.”

Firebirds forward Andrew Poturalski, a Calder Cup finalist for the fourth time, wasn’t surprised to draw the Bears again.

“We still have a sour taste in our mouth from last year, but we’re not thinking about that,” Poturalski said. “But it kind of feels like we have a little bit of unfinished business with this team, and we’ve had a pretty good season so far, but nothing really matters but the trophy.

“We’re all business and ready to go.”

Firebirds defenseman Connor Carrick wants his first Calder Cup title. Drafted by Washington in 2012, he spent parts of his first three pro seasons with Hershey and then faced the Bears while playing for the Toronto Marlies in the 2016 Eastern Conference Finals.

“We’re really excited,” Carrick said. “Personally, I have some really great memories here in Hershey.”

Carrick wasn’t part of last year’s journey, but he had to do his part this year for the Firebirds to be able to set up their showdown with Hershey again.

“It was really tough. I think we as a group knew we had a good team, a lot of similarities. We talked about how we had high expectations, and we didn’t particularly hide from them. We just knew. The plan we had in place is really high-end. The players we have to execute are really high-end.

“At the end of the day, it (last year’s Finals) came down to a Game 7 and a loose puck. You want those opportunities again, and I think you see it around the NHL a lot the last few years. Your job is to show up. You just maximize the surface of your luck. Maybe it goes your way. Maybe it doesn’t. I think there’s a freedom in that.”

Said Wright, “We’re expecting a long series. We’re expecting a grind of a series against these guys. They’re here for a reason. They’re an unbelievable team, so it’s going to be a battle. We’re really excited for it.”

Fifty-two weeks later, these elite clubs are on each other’s calendars once again. The Calder Cup is on the line. Either the Bears get their back-to-back titles, or the Firebirds snatch it away from them. Either way, those storylines will only build.

Said Poturalski, “I think it’s a fitting ending.”