Two teams destined for a heavyweight rematch? The Coachella Valley Firebirds raced out to a four-goal lead in Milwaukee Tuesday, then withstood a pair of attempted comeback goals to win 5-2 and take a 3-0 lead in the best-of-seven Western Conference of the American Hockey League’s Calder Cup Playoffs. Goalie Chris Driedger stopped all 15 Milwaukee shots in the third period to total 31 saves on the night.

In the AHL’s Eastern Conference final Tuesday, the Hershey Bears routed Cleveland for a 6-2 road win and their own 3-0 advantage in the series, one win away from a sweep, same as the Firebirds. Coachella Valley and Hershey went seven games and 10 minutes of overtime in last spring’s Calder Cup Final before the visiting Bears won the Cup.

Tuesday’s win is the ninth in a row for the Firebirds and head-coach-for-this-playoff-run Dan Bylsma. After losing Game 1 of a best-of-five divisional series against rival Calgary, Coachella reeled off three straight wins to advance to the next round, which finished quickly against Ontario in a three-game sweep of the Pacific Division final. After two wins in the southern California desert, the visiting Firebirds kept the streak alive with goals from D-men Cale Fleury (his fourth of the playoffs) and Ryker Evans (third) in the first nine minutes, followed by a late-period goal from rookie Ryan Winterton (his first pro postseason goal after a 22-goal regular season with CVF).

Fleury scored 31 seconds into the game, just three seconds slower than when Andrew Poturalski opened the scoring in front of a sold-out Acrisure Arena crowd in Game 2. Evans used his speed and high hockey IQ (also displayed in 36 Kraken games this season) to skate to the crease for a loose rebound, then, looking like he was going to shoot, instead wrapped around the net to tuck the puck inside the goaltender’s right post.

On the third goal of the opening 20 minutes – a frame that dulled any momentum Milwaukee might formulate from home fans – Winterton redirected a shot-pass from linemate Cameron Hughes. The AHL rookie was all smiles heading to the bench for traditional glove bumps after scoring. It should be noted Hughes and promising prospect Logan Morrison, along with defenseman Jimmy Schuldt, worked impressive puck possession and passing to set up the final sequence with Hughes feeding the Kraken’s 2021 third-round draft choice.

The scoring tilt continued when captain Max McCormick scored a minute and a half into the second period. The Firebirds captain and his wife welcomed a baby girl into the world Sunday with proud papa foregoing the team flight to stay with his family. He took a commercial flight Monday and, fittingly, took a pass from fellow new dad Andrew Poturalski.

“We knew full well he’d be back for this game,” said Bylsma about his veteran leader, per Andrew John of the Palm Springs Desert Sun. “The guy who becomes a dad always seems to get a goal right after.”

Rookie Jacob Melanson scored an empty-goal late game for his second goal of the playoffs.

Bylsma made a point after Friday’s win that, yes, his CVF squad can score goals but that the group is just as proud – maybe even more so – to be known for prowess and protection in the defensive zone. Game 4 and a possible sweep is Friday night in Milwaukee.

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