The Coachella Valley Firebirds punched their second straight ticket to the American Hockey League’s Calder Cup Final on Saturday, winning 5-1 in Milwaukee. Veteran forward John Hayden engineered the victory to repeat as Western Conference champions by scoring the game’s opening goal at even strength, adding a power play and insurance goal late first period and then completing a hat trick with a shorthanded goal late second period. That’s “special” in more ways than one.

Hayden scored a pair of clutch goals in Game 1 of this Western Conference final, with goalie Chris Driedger making 37 saves in Coachella Valley’s 2-1 win. Hayden scored five goals in the series, and he now has seven goals in 12 games this postseason.

Saturday, after the home-squad Admirals staved off elimination with a 7-2 decision in Game 4 that ended with four misconducts whistled on CVF players among ten penalties called in the final three minutes, the Firebirds were poised and productive. Coachella Valley scored four goals in the opening 20 minutes to stake a lead they didn’t relinquish, winning the best-of-seven series in five games.

Milwaukee players were whistled for four penalties in the first period, paving the way for two CVF power plays and the two others coming during sustained pressure in the seconds after the penalty time expired. Milwaukee’s Zach L’Heureux, who scored twice Thursday in Coachella Valley’s first loss in 10 games, was sent to the penalty box twice for roughing in the final five minutes of the period (15:17 and 18:37) with Firebirds biting on the Admirals star’s baiting. The penalties not only sat down a 10-goals-in-the-playoffs scorer but resulted in goals from Hayden and Devin Shore. There is a Firebirds discipline and mindset to be admired in those late-period outcomes.

The Game 5 game-winning goal was started by AHL rookie and 2021 third-round draft choice Ryan Winterton, taking a big hit while also managing to get the puck up ice to linemate and fellow AHL rookie Logan Morrison. The undrafted free agent Morrison crashed the net for a shot that nearly handcuffed Milwaukee goaltender Troy Grosenick.

Defenseman Jimmy Schuldt rushed in to snare the rebound, faking forehand and scoring backhand to make it 2-0 after just more than nine minutes into the game. It was Schuldt’s third goal of the playoffs, with Morrison picking up his sixth assist and Winterton getting his third helper. Both rookies scored their first pro playoffs during the Western Conference final.

The aforementioned Shore, who appeared in 21 games for the Kraken this season, scored his sixth goal of the AHL postseason for the Firebirds, who are now 10-2 through three rounds of the playoffs with the Pacific Division champions getting a bye in the first round. Coachella Valley now awaits the winner of the Eastern Conference final in which the defending Calder Cup champ Hershey Bears won the first three games of the series. Cleveland rallied with two home victories, including a 5-1 win Saturday to send the series back to Pennsylvania for Game 6 and a possible Game 7.

“There’s a huge amount of expectations on the team from what we did last year, and this journey isn’t complete for this team,” said Firebirds coach/future Kraken coach Dan Bylsma post-game, per Shad Powers of the Palm Springs Desert Sun. “But I think it’s a huge relief getting through Calgary [in the second round after a first-round bye for winning the Pacific Division regular season], getting through our division, and now to win the conference finals. That gives you the opportunity to win what the ultimate goal is. The guys are pretty jazzed up right now and we’re going to enjoy this one, as we should, and then get ready for what comes next.”

The start and dates of the Calder Cup Final are still to be announced, though we know it will follow a 2-3-2 format. If Hershey holds off Cleveland, the first two games will be road contests for Coachella Valley. Should Cleveland stage a “Monster” comeback (sorry, yes, pun intended), then the Firebirds would host Games 1 and 2. The middle three games (Game 5 if necessary) are played in other finalist’s city, then return to the city in which Games 1 and 2 are played if the series extends.

In just the second year of the franchise, Coachella Valley is in exclusive AHL company.

Hershey was the last AHL team to make back-to-back trips to the Calder Cup Final, doing so in 2009 and 2010. The Chicago Wolves won the Cup in 2019 and returned in 2022 after the event was canceled for two years due to the pandemic. Back in 1990 and 1991, Springfield (MA) and Rochester played back-to-back finals in 1990 and 1991.

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