Firebirds’ return home a long time coming

Photo: Stacey Salter

Patrick Williams, Features Writer

A lot has happened since the Coachella Valley Firebirds last skated on Acrisure Arena ice.

Eighteen days ago, on May 31, the Firebirds took a 2-0 series lead in the Western Conference Finals with a 3-1 win over Milwaukee.

From there they flew to Wisconsin and took two of three from the Admirals to close out the series and their second conference championship in as many seasons of existence.

And then, they waited.

On June 9, they flew to central Pennsylvania to wait out the conclusion of the Eastern Conference Finals between Hershey and Cleveland. While head coach Dan Bylsma and his staff had a chance to scout both potential opponents in person, Firebirds players headed off to the wilderness for a team-bonding retreat.

On June 12, the Firebirds finally learned their opponent when the Bears knocked off the Monsters in overtime of Game 7.

And after the teams split the first two games of the Finals in Hershey, it was time for a cross-country flight back to California.

“I’m going to need my GPS to get home,” Bylsma joked after Game 2. “That’s just playoff hockey.”

Game 3 is tonight at Acrisure Arena (10 ET/7 PT, AHLTV), and the Firebirds are eager to have their fans behind them after five consecutive road games in difficult buildings against Milwaukee and Hershey.

“It’ll be nice to get home to our fans,” said forward Luke Henman, who picked up his first goal of the postseason in Game 2 at Hershey. “I think they’re going to be ready to welcome us. They’re really loud, and we’re excited.

The Firebirds should be excited. Home has been good to them ever since they opened Acrisure Arena in December of 2022. They are 62-19-4-5 in their Palm Desert home, including a 6-0 mark this postseason while outscoring Calgary, Ontario and Milwaukee by a combined 23-12. They have lost just twice in regulation over their last 24 home dates (19-2-1-2).

Although the Bears play out of the Eastern Conference, they are quite familiar with what awaits them for the next three games after four intensely emotional games on Coachella Valley ice in last year’s Calder Cup Finals. The Firebirds shut out the Bears decisively in Games 1 (5-0) and 2 (4-0), and came through with a 5-2 victory in Game 6 before jumping out to a 2-0 lead in Game 7. But Hershey got the final three goals of the series, capped by Mike Vecchione’s overtime Cup-clincher.

Firebirds fans came through last year as well, packing in capacity crowds of 10,087 for all four games in the Finals. It was loud, emotional, frenzied playoff hockey, and the Firebirds play an up-tempo, rush-heavy style that only amplifies those fans further.

Despite the loss on Sunday, Bylsma is pleased with his club. They controlled significant stretches of the game only to come up against Hershey’s Hunter Shepard, this season’s Bastien Award winner in the AHL and the MVP of the 2023 Calder Cup Playoffs. He is someone the Firebirds know quite well.

“Sixty minutes of hockey,” Bylsma said. “I thought we played really well and had some opportunities. Shepard came up with three or four big glove saves and was the difference in the second period when we were really pushing.”

At this time of the year, the stakes are quite clear, and Bylsma hardly needs to spell them out for his players. If all goes well this week, the Firebirds could skate the Calder Cup at home after Game 5 on Saturday. The work continues tonight, the first time that the Firebirds will have a chance to be welcomed to the ice by their fans this month.

“Now we get three in our barn,” Bylsma said, “and we’ve got to make hay.”