Firebirds fans were clearly rocking the fun during the last home game of 2023-24, which also happened to be the biggest game of the postseason in the form of Game 5 of the American Hockey League’s 2024 Calder Cup Final. But as the tense and tied game in a tied series rolled into the third period, maybe more than a few of the faithful grew a little more anxious about the potential final score. The night’s winner would head back to Hersey with a 3-2 lead in the title round.

The anxiety was calmed a bit when Kraken prospect and 2021 third-round draft choice Ryan Winterton one-timed a pass from veteran forward and linemate Cameron Hughes early third period to stake Coachella Valley to a 2-1 lead. It’s Winterton’s fourth goal in the five games of this series. While not cracking the scoresheet on the play, fellow Kraken prospect Shane Wright’s forechecking prompted Hershey captain Dylan McIlrath to turn over the puck.

Anxious moments (along with “Let’s Go Firebirds” chants) returned in full-on mode when Hershey evened the scoreboard at 2-2 on a longer-range shot by defenseman Handy Haman Aktell (his fifth of the postseason). The defending Cup champs then doused the crowd’s fun with a late goal from forward Jimmy Huntington, who scored his second goal of the night. His opening goal just beat the first-period buzzer, and the second one was even more untimely for Coachella Valley. The 3-2 Hershey victory was the same score as the Eastern Conference champ’s Game 4 win.

In a familiar pattern in this spring’s rematch version of the American Hockey League’s 2023 Calder Cup Final, Coachella Valley rained shots and attempts at Hershey goaltender Hunter Shepard during the second period. After the teams exchanged goals (Kole Lind scored his fifth of the playoffs and Logan Morrison notched his ninth assist, the latter second highest on the CVF roster) and each squad finished with eight shots during the first 20 minutes, the home squad Kraken affiliate fired 15 of the first 16 shots in the middle period with Hershey goalie Hunter Shepard keeping his team in the game with his usual dash of acrobatic saves.

Right after the game, Dan Bylsma walked into the player's locker room to talk with his squad, which was not his usual habit after the Firebird's loss. His message was simple and brief: We’re going to Hershey, and “We’re grabbing two.”

“I liked a lot of what we did tonight,” said Bylsma post-game. “It was a gutsy effort. It was a complete effort. We've just got to keep playing that way. We can't talk about the referees, we can't talk about the bad bounces, we've just got to keep making the next play. We believe if we keep doing that, we're going to come out on top.”

Game 6 is Monday in Hershey and the Firebirds need to win both that game and a potential Game 7 Wednesday to return to the West Coast with the Calder Cup. A note of optimism: Coachella Valley led the AHL in points percentage on the road during the regular season and are tops in road record this postseason.

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