Weekend notebook: Firebirds set to lead push to playoffs

Photo: Mike Zitek

📝 by Patrick Williams

Players, coaches, and staffs returned to the ice Thursday following the AHL All-Star break.

Practice, pack the bus, and hit the road.

The unofficial “second half” of the 2022-23 season starts with a 15-game slate tonight.

The stretch drive is on, and so is everything that accompanies it. Trades, speculation, playoff races and a schedule packed with divisional battles.

The National Hockey League trade deadline is exactly three weeks from today — March 3 — and a pair of AHL players have already been included in early blockbuster deals.

The New York Islanders and Vancouver Canucks got into action quickly, striking a multi-player deal Jan. 30 headlined by Bo Horvat and Anthony Beauvillier. Aatu Raty, a strong forward prospect who played 27 games with the Bridgeport Islanders, featured as a key piece of the haul for Vancouver and made his Abbotsford debut last weekend in San Jose. Raty also has two goals in 12 NHL games this season.

Another deal hit Thursday, this one involving the New York Rangers and St. Louis Blues. Hunter Skinner went in the deal to the Blues as part of the return for Vladmir Tarasenko. Skinner, a 2019 fourth-round pick by the Rangers, played 49 games last season for the Hartford Wolf Pack and will head up I-91 to join the Blues’ affiliate in Springfield. Perhaps this move can offer a new opportunity for a defenseman who is still only 21 years old.

AHL games are even more heavily scouted than normal this time of the year, and the stretch drive provides a strong platform to see exactly where prospects stand right now. Players will face second-half playoff battles, some of them for the first time in their pro careers. The AHL also has implemented a 72-game unified schedule this season, a significant goal that AHL president and CEO Scott Howson has executed. With that format now in place, AHL clubs have anywhere between 25 and 31 games still to go before the regular season concludes April 16.

So, is it too early for record-watching?

The 1992-93 Binghamton Rangers, who went 57-13-10 and had an AHL-record 124 points, hold the league’s all-time best single-season points percentage mark at .775.

At .780 this season with 31 games to go are the Coachella Valley Firebirds (30-7-3-1), the first-year AHL affiliate of the Seattle Kraken. The Firebirds come out of the break riding an 11-game point streak at home (10-0-0-1) and with a 23-3-1-1 mark in their last 28 games overall. They resume play tonight in San Diego, facing a Gulls club that they have defeated in all five meetings this season by a combined score of 22-5.

But a major challenge has arisen for Coachella Valley. The team confirmed Thursday that All-Star forward Andrew Poturalski will miss between four and six months after undergoing surgery for a lower-body injury. Poturalski is a two-time Calder Cup winner and the AHL’s two-time reigning scoring champion. That loss will be something to solve for Dan Bylsma, the Stanley Cup-winning head coach and Jack Adams Award winner who now leads the Firebirds behind the bench.

“Dan’s a blast to play for,” said captain Max McCormick, who joined rookie defenseman Ryker Evans as the Firebirds contingent at the 2023 AHL All-Star Classic earlier this week. “Just a great person, great coach, makes it a lot of fun to come to the rink every day.”

Up and down the lineup, the Firebirds are deep and still possess considerable skill even without a force like Poturalski. McCormick and Jesper Froden have both hit the 20-goal mark already, and are tied for seventh in the AHL with 45 points apiece. With 26 points, Evans is tied for the league scoring lead among rookie blueliners. Coachella Valley leads the league scoring at 3.73 goals per game, and ranks fifth at 2.68 goals against behind the tandem of Joey Daccord and Christopher Gibson.

“I think our ‘compete’” is the team’s identity, McCormick said.

“We’re just a very competitive team. We also have a lot of skill, and we can finish, but I think first and foremost just our competitive level. It doesn’t matter what we’re doing. If it’s practice, if it’s a small-area game in practice among each other, if it’s ping-pong, it doesn’t matter. We just have a competitive group that always wants to win, and that carries over into games. I think that’s our biggest strength.

A lot of that competitiveness starts with the captain, though. Bylsma worked alongside McCormick last season with the Charlotte Checkers when Seattle prospects played there.

“Max has an extremely high compete level,” Bylsma said. “To see it be transferred to our other players is a true testament to his leadership.”

That intensity spreads across the roster as well. The Firebirds are stocked with experienced players like Kole Lind, Alexander True, Brogan Rafferty and Cameron Hughes, who led the Providence Bruins in scoring each of the past two seasons and was one of the best two-way forwards in the Eastern Conference there.

“Hughes is just a baller,” Bylsma said. “He’s a gamer. He’s one guy who draws people into the fight with the way he plays and the grit that he plays with.

“Every chance we get, we want to be the hardest-competing team on the ice. I love looking at our record. I love looking where we’re at, how many wins we have, but I’m more excited about the guys establishing that we’re going to be the hardest-working team, the hardest-competing team every night we get a chance.”

We will see just how far the Firebirds can carry this level of play that they have established through the first four months of the season, even without Poturalski. Perhaps Binghamton’s 30-year-old record is in play, challenged by the Firebirds, the Calgary Wranglers, or another club. Perhaps a few more NHL trades shake up rosters across the AHL and act as a disruptive force in the standings. This is the AHL, where predictions are a fool’s errand, after all.

Starting tonight, the push to the Calder Cup Playoffs is on in full.


The Hartford Wolf Pack have the Lehigh Valley Phantoms in town for an Atlantic Division clash in the AHLTV Free Game of the Week tonight (7 p.m. ET).

Both clubs are elbowing their way through the tight Atlantic Division, where just six points separate fourth place from eighth entering the weekend.

Hartford won the teams’ only previous meeting this season, a 3-2 victory back on Dec. 7.

🏒 Fresh off a trip to Laval for the All-Star Classic, head coach Todd Nelson and forwards Ethen Frank and Mike Vecchione return to lead the Hershey Bears into action tonight at Utica.

Hershey lost three of its last four games before the break but still sits tied with Providence atop the Atlantic Division at 63 points. The Comets are winless in their last four (0-3-0-1) and have scored just 13 goals in their last nine outings.

Toronto owns the largest division lead in the AHL, 11 points ahead of second-place Utica in the North. The Marlies, who sent Joseph Woll, Logan Shaw, Noel Hoefenmayer and head coach Greg Moore to Laval for All-Star, are in Charlotte this weekend for a two-game set.

🏒 Long-time AHL defenseman Trevor Carrick has been reacquainting himself with the Eastern Conference after spending the past three seasons out west with San Diego and San Jose.

Now in Syracuse after signing with the Tampa Bay Lightning in the offseason, Carrick spent his first five pro seasons with Charlotte as a prospect for the Carolina Hurricanes, the team’s former NHL parent club. The return east has meant seeing old faces again, starting with the Checkers, who were in town to face the Crunch last weekend. Charlotte head coach Geordie Kinnear was an assistant during Carrick’s first two pro seasons, while assistant coaches Bobby Sanguinetti and Jared Staal and forwards Riley Nash and Zac Dalpe were teammates of Carrick’s at different points.

“It’s been weird,” Carrick said after last Saturday night’s game. “I played with the coaching staff more than the players. The city of Charlotte was great, too. I have some really great memories there. Getting to win the Calder Cup in that last year there, [it] was pretty special to leave on that note.”

🏒 Belleville and Cleveland can break up some of the traffic jam below the North Division playoff line with a pair of head-to-head games this weekend. Hosted by the Monsters tonight and Saturday, the teams each have 39 points and are five points behind Laval, which occupies the fifth and final playoff spot.

The trip to Cleveland is also interim head coach David Bell’s first time leading the B-Sens on the road. Bell made his head coaching debut last Saturday in a 5-4 overtime loss to Rochester after replacing Troy Mann.

🏒 The Springfield Thunderbirds will put their franchise-record eight-game winning streak to the test tonight when they visit Rochester.

The Thunderbirds rallied from 3-0 down to defeat Bridgeport last Saturday, 5-4 in overtime. Springfield has won three OT games this season, all against the Islanders.

Matthew Peca was named Howies Hockey Tape/AHL Player of the Week after recording seven points in three games last week. Peca has tallied 14 points in 12 games since coming off the injured list on Jan. 13.

Tonight is Springfield’s only game in a 12-day stretch between Feb. 5 and Feb. 16.

🏒 The Iowa Wild carry a 14-game point streak (9-0-3-2) into a home-and-home with Chicago, beginning tonight in Rosemont, Ill. The Wild have not lost in regulation since their last visit to Allstate Arena, a 5-2 setback on Jan. 3.

🏒 Atop the AHL with 62 points (22 goals, 40 assists), Tucson’s Michael Carcone has already surpassed career highs in assists and points, and he is only two goals off his previous high set last season with Tucson.

This is Carcone’s third campaign in Tucson, a place he first came to in 2020-21 when the Nashville Predators, without a full-time affiliate during the COVID-shortened season, loaned him to the Roadrunners.

Carcone showed well with Tucson, prompting the parent Arizona Coyotes to sign him to a two-year contract in July 2021. Since then, the 26-year-old Carcone has been able to play his first 30 NHL games and also show in the AHL that he could be more than a middle-six agitator like he was earlier in his career.

“I was lucky enough, fortunate enough, to land in Tucson, and they gave me an opportunity to play this role, and this is where I feel most comfortable,” said Carcone, who was the Roadrunners’ All-Star representative in Laval. “Just a little bit of luck, and just finding your way.”

🏒 Time is running out for the San Diego Gulls to make a move in the Pacific Division, but Lukas Dostal is well-positioned to handle the challenge.

The Gulls are 15 points behind Bakersfield for the final playoff spot in the Pacific, with three games against the Condors on tap over the next 12 days.

Dostal, who teamed with Calgary’s Dustin Wolf in sharing MVP honors at Monday’s All-Star Challenge in Laval, has been leaned on heavily by head coach Roy Sommer. In addition to seven NHL appearances with Anaheim, Dostal ranks fourth in the AHL in minutes played and has a solid .910 save percentage in 33 games for San Diego.

“We’re just trying to stick with it and do the work every day,” said Dostal.

Sommer has been in a bad spot before, too. His 2017-18 San Jose Barracuda sat last in the Pacific Division with six games remaining; they went on to win all six games and take a spot in that spring’s Calder Cup Playoff field.

“We put ourselves in a tough situation,” Sommer said of this year’s Gulls. “You’re never out of it till you’re out of it.”

San Diego kicks off its weekend with Coachella Valley in town tonight, and it is “Pink in the Rink” Night at Pechanga Arena. The seventh annual event will feature pink Gulls jerseys as well as other pink-themed attire and merchandise. The San Diego Gulls Foundation, in partnership with Susan G. Komen San Diego, will “promote women’s health initiatives, cancer research, and awareness.”


🗣️ “It feels like an NHL rink, to be honest.”

— San Diego Gulls All-Star goaltender Lukas Dostal, on experiencing Place Bell in Laval for the first time