Last spring when the Coachella Valley Firebirds advanced to the American Hockey League’s Calder Cup Final, they had played 19 games over four rounds. This spring, the Firebirds received a first-round bye for winning the Pacific Division, then won three series in 12 games compiling a 10-2 record to again win the AHL’s West Conference and play for the league championship in the second year of the Coachella Valley franchise.

The title series starts Friday in Hershey, PA, with a 4 p.m. puck drop. To mark the Firebirds’ run to date, here are seven things to know about the 2024 rematch of the 2023 AHL final:

1. Reducing the ‘Drama,’ Getting Healthy

Firebirds/Kraken coach Dan Bylsma has been clear about his task at hand: Getting his CVF squad back to the Calder Cup Final for another chance to take home the title. So far, so good with Bylsma and his coaching staff looking for ways to keep his group game-ready with significant layoffs between, first, the regular and round two, then sweeping a series and ending a best-of-seven series in five games.

“Last year we were all about drama going to three [in a best-of-three first round] and the maximum five and five [in the second and third rounds], then six in the conference final in the four rounds leading to the final,” said Bylsma by phone mid-week. This year, we've been fortunate enough to win in fewer games and come out pretty intact. We've got some bumps and bruises but we've had some time every series to get healthy in the time off.”

2. Shane Wright’s Status

The one major exception to a healthy Firebirds roster: AHL rookie Shane Wright, who was named to the 2023-24 AHL Top Prospect Team this week, has missed the last six games with a lower-body injury classified as “day-to-day.” He has been skating with the team and shed his no-contact red practice jersey recently. If he returns to the lineup, that’s another plus; he racked up five points (two goals, three assists) in the first half-dozen games of the postseason.

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Shane Wright

3. Series Format is 2-3-2 Best-of-Seven

The AHL doesn’t go to the NHL’s 2-2-1-1-1 format in playoff series, saving on travel time and expenses. In this year’s final, the Firebirds are opening with two on the road in Hershey, Friday night (4 p.m., all games on AHLTV.com) and Sunday at 2 p.m. The series then moves to the southern California desert for Games 3, 4 and 5 (the fifth game if necessary). Should the series push to six or seven games, those contests will be back East.

The series features the league’s two best road teams during the regular season. The Firebirds were 26-5-5 for a .792 winning percentage, while Hershey won 24 on the road against seven regulation losses and five shootout losses for a .736 win percentage. Coachella Valley is 4-2 in road games this postseason, while Hershey is 3-3. The Firebirds are 6-0 at home while Hershey is 7-1, with the only blemish an overtime loss to Cleveland in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference final.

4. Playing the Long Game...

Over the last two postseasons, Dan Bylsma and his coaches always plan for each series to reach the maximum. All the better if the series is won sooner, but he wants his squad to have a do-what-it-takes perspective, not getting to worked up if there is a loss or two while not assuming a series is won before a fourth win is official.

“We talk about embracing a mindset the series is going to seven,” said Bylsma. “We’re planning on playing seven, and we're gonna play each one accordingly. When we lost Game 4 [of the Western Conference final], we figured out what went awry, especially in the last 10 minutes. We know we didn’t play our best and gave Milwaukee too much time in their offensive zone. That was the story of the game. We decided right after the next game [Game 5 clincher] would be our chance to get back to the way we play. That was clear from the hop in Game 5.”

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Dan Bylsma

5. Depth Scoring for Coachella Valley

Ten Firebirds players have scored seven points or more during the 12-game playoff run to date. The point distribution represents a healthy mix of veterans and younger Kraken prospects. NHL-tested Devin Shore leads CVF with 11 points. His five goals are second to fellow veteran John Hayden (seven goals, including a hat trick). Ryker Evans (3 G, 4 A) and Logan Morrison (1 G, 6 A) each have seven points. Nineteen different Firebirds have notched at least one point, with only 2022 fourth-rounder Tucker Robertson not on the score sheet (to be fair, he has only played in one game to date).

“How well the team's playing is what gives everyone an opportunity to be the hero and a difference maker on any given night,” said Bylsma.

6. In the Clutch

Nine different Coachella Valley skaters have logged game-winning goals this postseason. Defenseman Jimmy Schuldt has two, while Shore, Hayden, Evans, Shane Wright, Ryan Winterton, Cale Fleury, Max McCormick and Kole Lind all have one.

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Jimmy Schuldt

7. Gauging the Goalies

The aforementioned Bylsma says Firebird goaltender Chris Driedger might be the Coachella Valley player who has “most upped his game from the regular season to the playoffs.” Hard to argue with the many pivotal Driedger saves in close wins, facing an average of 32 shots per game and leading all AHL goalies with a .927 save percentage in the postseason. Driedger has held foes to two or fewer goals seven times, and Bylsma especially commends his goaltender’s bounce-back efforts to win the next game after the two losses. In the Hershey net, Hunter Shepard was in the crease for last spring’s Calder Cup-winning seasons and is currently boasting a save percentage of .920.

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