Hayden’s playoff performance lifting Firebirds

Photo: Mike Zitek

Patrick Williams, TheAHL.com Features Writer

Some players are just built to play in June.

“It’s a different game in the playoffs,” Coachella Valley Firebirds goaltender Chris Driedger said. “[Fewer] skilled tic-tac-toe plays and a little more bringing out the shovels and taking it to the net.”

Firebirds forward John Hayden is one of those players, and he brought the shovel last night in putting on a show at Giant Center in a 4-3 victory against Hershey to open the Calder Cup Finals. Game 2 of the best-of-seven series is Sunday (5 ET, AHLTV, NHL Network).

“He’s a beast on the puck,” head coach Dan Bylsma said of Hayden.

His two Game 1 tallies, one of them a first-period shorthander, gave him five goals in his last two games and took his postseason total up to nine goals, one off the league lead. His 12 points top the Firebirds during the playoffs after he had 26 points (15 goals, 11 assists) in 65 regular-season games, and his plus-12 rating is the highest in the AHL.

Originally a 2013 third-round pick by the Chicago Blackhawks, Hayden scored 21 goals as a senior at Yale but has never produced as a pro like he has in the last six weeks. He has 17 goals in 249 career games in the NHL with Chicago, New Jersey, Arizona, Buffalo and Seattle, and netted a career-high 17 goals with the Firebirds last season before an injury kept him out of much of last season’s postseason run.

What Hayden offers Coachella Valley is a pure, big-body wing who can protect the puck. Bylsma has found extended chemistry with a line featuring Hayden on the right side of center Devin Shore and Marian Studenic flanking on the left. Studenic provides elite speed to pair with Shore’s creativity and Hayden’s muscle.

“I think for us our line is a combination of having a lot of experience and also being able to play with each other for as long as we have,” Hayden said.

Hayden is on track to become a free agent July 1. This spring’s performance should serve him well, whether he remains with the Kraken organization or explores free agency next month. This season’s Firebirds are a heavier, more physical team than the one that fell to Hershey last June, and that starts with Hayden. After Hershey had reduced Coachella Valley’s lead to 3-2 late in the second period of Game 1, Hayden got inside positioning on down-low coverage before picking up a loose puck and whipping it from the left circle past Hunter Shepard for what would stand as the game-winning tally.

“John’s been a bull for us out there,” said Driedger, who contributed 16 saves in the Game 1 win. “Even if he wasn’t scoring, he’d be one of our most effective players. Let me just put it this way – I’m glad he’s on our team.”

Hayden can skate as well. With the Bears already owning a 1-0 lead and on the power play early in Friday’s contest, Hayden jumped on a fumbled puck inside his defensive zone before outracing two Bears to beat Shepard and tie the game.

Bylsma credited Hayden’s goal with helping to settle down his club.

“That start was great for them, a lot of jam, the crowd was into it, a tough place to play in, so credit to them for that start,” Hayden said of the Bears. “But I thought we did a pretty good job of settling things down and getting to our game.”