Firebirds put on a show in Game 3

Photo: Eric Fowler

Patrick Williams, Features Writer

This was the Coachella Valley Firebirds putting on a show.

Back on home ice for the first time since May 31, the Firebirds handed the visiting Hershey Bears a 6-2 loss in Game 3 of the Calder Cup Finals last night and took a two games to one lead in the best-of-seven series. Game 4 is Thursday night (10 ET/7 PT, AHLTV, NHL Network).

Captain Max McCormick led the way with a hat trick, including two goals in the opening 6:03. Rookie Shane Wright supplied a highlight-reel goal along with two assists as the Firebirds chased AHL goaltender of the year Hunter Shepard after their fifth goal. Coachella Valley unleashed 42 shots, including 23 in the second period – the most by any team in a Finals period in 24 years. And they did it all without Andrew Poturalski, who missed his second consecutive game after departing during Game 1.

“I thought the first period was probably the fastest hockey of the year,” head coach Dan Bylsma said after the game. “It did go both ways, though. It was pretty helter-skelter a little bit, but pace and where the game was played was right where we wanted it to be.”

Said McCormick about being back at Acrisure Arena, “We were excited to get home. The fans were going to bring the energy.”

It was exactly the type of performance that visiting teams have come to fear from the Firebirds, whose 3.50 goals per game led the AHL in the regular season. Coachella Valley’s speed is potent inside the neutral zone and off the rush, but they also repeatedly won board and net-front puck battles. Their first four goals all came off winning loose pucks and gaining positioning on Hershey defenders. They also managed to generate second-chance opportunities, something that is vital against a goaltender of Shepard’s caliber.

Bylsma and McCormick have been together dating back to the 2021-22 season when they were with the Charlotte Checkers.

“He’s the leader of our team,” Bylsma said of his captain.

The Firebirds possess elite leadership, but youth and depth are part of their story as well. Even without a key figure like Poturalski, a two-time Calder Cup champion who ranked fourth in team scoring in the regular season, the Firebirds have continued to roll. Aside from McCormick’s hat trick, their other three goals in Game 3 came from 21-year-old Lleyton Roed, 20-year-old Ryan Winterton and the 20-year-old Wright. Roed, a Hobey Baker Award nominee from Bemidji State who signed as a free agent with the Seattle Kraken in March, made his playoff debut in Game 2.

“Depth has been a key to our success all year long,” McCormick said. “We’ve got a ton of guys who can contribute offensively up and down our lineup, guys who have been working like dogs. He (Roed) has been super-impactful for us over the last two games, and he’s making a difference. Seeing guys like him and other guys who haven’t been in the lineup yet, the work that they’ve put in and seeing it pay off, it’s been fun to watch.”

The Firebirds have been in a somewhat similar position as this before. Last year they bombarded the Bears three times in the Finals, but lost four one-goal decisions. They have now outscored Hershey 22-7 in five games at Acrisure Arena. But they are moving on quickly from Tuesday’s win and steeling themselves for a Bears response in Game 4.

“We’ve got a lot of work to do,” McCormick warned. “This is a series that is going to be a tough finish, and we haven’t done anything yet, so the focus is the first shift of our next game.”