Poturalski’s return provides a lift for Firebirds

📝 by Patrick Williams

Hours and hours in the gym. The rehab. Hyperbaric chamber work. Cryotherapy.

Whatever it took.

It all has paid off for Andrew Poturalski.

Poturalski was in the middle of another standout season, his first in the Seattle Kraken organization after he captained the Chicago Wolves to a Calder Cup championship in 2022. A third consecutive scoring title was in reach, having racked up 42 points in 38 games.

But a lower-body injury knocked the two-time Calder Cup champion out of the Coachella Valley Firebirds lineup on Jan. 26. The team announced Feb. 9 that he had surgery and would miss four to six months. Given that timeline, even the best-case scenario for Poturalski and the club would have had him returning in June — provided that the Firebirds could go that far in the Calder Cup Playoffs.

Head athletic trainer Brett Bernstein and assistant athletic trainer Justin Broy work along with strength and conditioning coach Mike Donoghue both to keep the Firebirds healthy and to ready them for a return to play following an injury. The Firebirds have access to top-tier medical care, resources and rehabilitation, but everyone had their work cut out for them even to reach that June timeline.

Even with Poturalski out for nearly the final three months of the regular season, the Firebirds continued to win. They wound up with 48 victories and 103 points, second only to Calgary in the entire AHL.

After defeating Tucson and Colorado to begin the postseason, the Firebirds and Wranglers met in the Pacific Division finals and split the first two games in Calgary before heading south. Coachella Valley had a distinct home-ice advantage at Acrisure Arena, but still, they somehow had to solve the powerhouse Wranglers.

Then Poturalski made his way onto the ice to warm up for Game 3.

“They gave me my timeline,” Poturalski said, “and I always wanted to beat my timeline. Since day one that I got hurt, I was doing everything possible to try to get healthy, rehab and get back quicker.

“I was doing research on little things I can do to help the process. I wanted to leave no things unchecked in my mind, and I did everything I could get back. It was a lot of ups and downs… a lot of time in the gym and the training room. Pretty much anything that studies say helps with injuries. You name it, and I was doing it.”

Poturalski picked quite the night to return. Game 3 went into triple overtime before Ryker Evans won it for the Firebirds six minutes before midnight local time.

“Nothing like getting thrown back into the fire,” Poturalski said. “But when you get thrown in the mix like that, you’re not really thinking about your injury. You just focus on the game.

“We joked that I got two games for one.”

But Calgary took Game 4 to set up a winner-take-all series finale — the fourth time already this postseason that the Firebirds would face elimination. Could they pull off another do-or-die win, this time against the AHL’s top team?

Or would Poturalski’s return be short-lived?

Coachella Valley opened up four separate one-goal leads on the Wranglers and their MVP goaltender, Dustin Wolf. And after Firebirds forward Jeremy McKenna scored to make it 5-5 with 5:47 to play, Game 5 was headed to sudden death.

This time Poturalski made sure that there would not be another marathon. He drifted away from coverage along the right boards, held up at the blue line, and then signaled to Jesper Froden, who had steered the puck into the Calgary zone. Froden cut just before the left circle and directed a cross-ice pass through coverage to Poturalski, who ripped a right-dot shot under the cross bar to put away the Wranglers.

“He’s such a good goalie,” Poturalski said of Wolf. “Our game plan was tailored around him.”

On the same night as Poturalski’s return last Monday, Seattle’s season ended in a Game 7 second-round loss to Dallas. That meant that AHL rookie of the year Tye Kartye could return to Coachella Valley following a fine performance in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. So could Froden, who had 25 goals in 44 games before his promotion to the Kraken in late February. Froden and Kartye both dressed for Games 4 and 5, and Froden contributed a goal and two assists in the series-clinching victory.

“I think it really gave a big boost to everybody,” Firebirds goaltender Joey Daccord said of Poturalski rejoining the team. “He is an incredible player. He’s a really big part of this team. It hurt for a long time not having him in the lineup, so to get him back — his leadership and his poise and confidence with the puck — I think was huge for our team.”

But the hands, the touch, the feel of the game do not come back immediately, no matter how much work went into the rehab process and returning to the ice for practice.

“It takes some time,” Poturalski said. “I think my first game I played pretty conservatively. As I got more comfortable there… I started to get back to my game and what I’m used to. It’s still going to take some time being out that long, but you’ve just got to start playing and figure it out on the go.”

The Firebirds’ next test will be the Milwaukee Admirals, who visit Coachella Valley to open the Western Conference Finals on Thursday night. Poturalski, who also won the Calder Cup in 2019 with the Charlotte Checkers, is eight wins away now from his third title.

“It was a crazy process,” Poturalski said of his months of recovery, “but we made it through it. Someone’s got to win, so why not us?”