Home is where the goals are for the Coachella Valley Firebirds in these 2024 Calder Cup Playoffs. The Kraken’s American Hockey League affiliate was averaging a league-best 4.5 goals per game at Acrisure Arena going into Tuesday’s pivotal Game 3. The home squad topped that number in an intense matchup for a 6-2 final.

Coachella Valley is now halfway to winning the Calder Cup, with the never-easy third and fourth wins still in balance (note to self and readers: most current reference is the 2024 Stanley Cup Final, with Florida still seeking a clinching win after sweeping the first three games). The Calder Cup Game 4 is Thursday in the southern California desert, same time (7 p.m. puck drop, AHLTV.com, NHL Network), same playoff intensity.

The game took an odd twist for Hershey coach Todd Nelson, who is facing Firebirds coach Dan Bylsma for the fourth time in the AHL’s championship series (once as players, once as assistant coaches and two straight springs as head coaches). Hershey put the wrong lineup on the ice to start the game, not matching what was handed to AHL officials. Firebirds captain Max McCormick scored on the ensuing delay-of-game bench penalty on the visiting Bears with assists from veteran forward Kole Lind and 2022 first-round draft choice Shane Wright to make it 1-0 and Firebirds fans bedlam two minutes into this matchup.

McCormick would score twice more in this game, at the six-minute mark of the first period on a rebound off a Wright shot on Bears goalie Hunter Shepard, then completing the hat trick on an empty net with under two minutes left on the clock. McCormick, a new father and revered teammate, has eight goals over four series this postseason.

"I thought the first period was probably the fastest period of hockey of the year," said Firebirds/Kraken coach Dan Bylsma in a post-game media meetup. "It did go both ways, though. We had a good amount of offensive zone time, but they used their speed to get a couple of two-on-ones in the first period [one converted into a goal]. But the pace and where the game is played is right where we wanted it to be."

To wit, defending Cup champ Hershey was not to be denied climbing back into the contest, getting one goal back mid-first period and taking advantage of an early second-period penalty on Lind for high-sticking to tie the game at 2-2. But a franchise-record 23 shots of goal (most in any period during the first two seasons) for Coachella Valley in the middle frame overwhelmed the aforementioned Shepard and Hershey’s stellar defensive corps.

Lleyton Roed, a college free agent signed out of Bemidji State this spring, scored the Firebirds’ third goal, with assists going to Ryker Evans (his sixth) and 2021 fifth-rounder Jacob Melanson (his fourth). Roed was playing in his second-ever AHL game, drawing in Sunday in Hershey with alternate captain Andrew Poturalski out with an injury sustained in Game 1.

Firebirds/Kraken coach Bylsma has praised Roed’s elite speed and hockey smarts to go with a relentless work ethic during practices since joining Coachella Valley. Another impressive part of Roed’s game: He is unafraid of getting to the net and staying there, which helped him score Tuesday when he collected Evans’ hard shot from the left point and cashed in the rebound with a deft tuck inside the right post.

Later in the second period, Ryan Winterton scored his fourth goal of the playoffs and third in this series after bagging a pair of goals in the Game 1 win. Winterton showed his formidable hands-work to grab and score on a loose puck after veteran linemate Cameron Hughes worked a wraparound attempt out front. Undrafted free agent prospect Logan Morrison picked up his impressive eighth assist in the playoffs, while Hughes now has a dozen helpers to lead the Firebirds and AHL in the postseason.

True to form, the Firebirds' offensive rushes and scoring didn’t vanish while protecting a two-goal lead in the third period. While veteran defenseman Cale Fleury put a couple of big hits on Bears players in the first seven minutes, then flashed his offensive chops by sending a pass to Kole Lind, who dished to Wright at the Firebirds blue line. The Kraken prospect, who scored four goals in a five-game span late in the Kraken season, took it from there with a highlight-reel goal, showing his improved speed and a skate-stop deke to beat Hershey’s D and goalie Shepard, which ended the Hershey starter’s night.

Wright had a three-point night with the Kraken in an early April win at Anaheim and repeated the feat Tuesday. He now has nine points (three goals, six assists) in nine playoff games, missing six games with the injury. Bylsma and the Firebirds training staff held Wright out from the latter games of the victorious Western Conference final, a move that appears to be paying off with Wright kicking into a highly noticeable higher gear in the first three games of this series.

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