During American Hockey League affiliate Coachella Valley’s inaugural season in 2022-23, the Firebirds ranked as the oldest squad in the league out of necessity. Most of the team’s draft choices weren’t old enough to play in the AHL per a long-standing agreement between NHL teams and the Canadian Hockey League’s trio of juniors leagues.

This year, CVF got younger by 12 slots in the AHL age-of-squad rankings, standing as the 20th oldest team. That injection of youth, including the likes of 20-plus goal scorers and frequent linemates Shane Wright and Ryan Winterton, helped the Firebirds to a Pacific Division regular-season title (they were second last season) and now a place in the Western Conference final of the AHL’s Calder Cup Playoffs.

Sunday night, with the Firebirds trailing, 2-0, on the road against division rival Ontario (CA), AHL rookie defenseman Ville Ottavainen (4th round, 2021 NHL Draft) earned his first playoff assist five-plus minutes into the second period on an ice-breaker goal by veteran forward Kole Lind. Ottavainen started the scoring play with a quick-transition pass from the Coachella Valley end up to CVF captain Max McCormick in the neutral zone.

Six minutes later, forwards Jacob Melanson (5th round, 2021) and Luke Henman (first Kraken player/prospect signed to a pro contract months before the 2021 expansion draft) worked the puck to veteran defenseman Jimmy Schuldt to even the game. Melanson drove toward the net to begin the scoring sequence, firing a shot that landed side of the next. Henman retrieved the puck behind the goal line, sending it back to Schuldt for a shot that threaded through traffic that included 2022 second-rounder Jani Nyman providing a screen with this 6-foot-2, 212-pound frame. 

Both Melanson and Henman (who head coach Dan Bylsma credits having a work ethic and professional approach that is a gold standard for aspiring prospects such as Melanson) now have three assists each in the 2024 Calder Cup postseason. Schuldt and his D-partner Ottavainen were on ice for both second-period scores.

Just 46 seconds into the third period, Lind struck again with the assist going to playoffs-proven teammate Andrew Polturalski to complete the Firebirds' comeback and a three-game sweep of the home-squad Reign in the best-of-five Pacific Division final. Ontario, the LA Kings affiliate that was 5-0 coming into the showdown series with the Firebirds, sweeping their first two postseason series in the minimum number of games.

Coachella Valley has now won six games in a row after dropping the first game of its best-of-five division semifinal to Calgary before taking that series in four games. NHL-tested goalie Chris Driedger made 22 saves in the win, outdueling Ontario’s hot goalie, Eric Portillo, a star and former teammate at NCAA Michigan, alongside Kraken center Matty Beniers. With the score knotted at 2-2 later second period, Driedger made a breakaway stop on top LA prospect and defenseman Brandt Clarke, plus a couple of monster saves late in the third period during a 6-on-4 empty-net sequence and a Ryker Evans penalty. 

The Firebirds now will prepare for the Western Conference final, awaiting the winner of the Central Division final, which Milwaukee leads over Grand Rapids, one game to none. The soonest the series can end is Wednesday if Milwaukee sweeps and the latest finish would be Sunday if the series goes to deciding Game 5. If Milwaukee wins out, it would mark a rematch of the best-of-seven 2023 Western Conference final in which Coachella Valley prevailed in six games.

Firebirds Get the Jump in Game 2

Friday night’s Calder Cup Playoffs game between host Coachella Valley and the visiting Ontario Reign proved to be another rollicking night of goal-scoring mega noise and “Driedger! Driedger!” chants (especially late game) for Firebirds fans in the southern California desert.

To point: The Firebirds jumped out to a 4-1 lead by the end of two periods, scoring their first goal on their first shot of the game. Chris Driedger continued his strong postseason with 35 saves on the night, none bigger than a breakaway stop on Ontario captain and leading scorer T.J. Tynan with five-plus minutes left in regulation to keep the two-goal lead and ultimate final result of 5-3 Firebirds.

“Chris made two big saves for us [late third period] that kept it from becoming a one-goal game,” said Firebirds coach Dan Bylsma post-game. “He gives us confidence we can salt the game away.”

Besides establishing a 2-0 lead in games for this best-of-five Pacific Division final (the third of five rounds in the league’s postseason), the night also proved another shining example of how the American Hockey League can develop and prepare prospects for taking the big step to an NHL roster. Shane Wright, the Kraken’s 2022 first-round draft choice (4th overall) playing a full AHL season as a 19-year-old, scored his second goal (the game-winner) in six 2024 postseason games and added two assists Friday. Wright, with a skillful on-off-the-stick sequence of receiving a pass from linemate Cameron Hughes and just as quickly finding defenseman Cale Fleury mid-range in the offensive to make it a 2-0 lead mid-first period.

To create Wright’s net-front scoring chance and ensuing goal in the second period, 2021 third-rounder Ryan Winterton won a multi-player scrum in the deep left corner, moving the puck from behind the goal line to a wraparound-the-near-post attempt that ricocheted off bodies before reaching Wright.

“The fourth goal was really big for us,” said Bylsma, who led the Firebirds to the Western Conference title last season and within a Game 7 overtime goal of winning the Calder Cup. “The game was turning into a low-event game [referring to Ontario’s defensive system of clogging the neutral zone with a hockey version of a 1-3-1 zone defense].”

Jani Nyman, 2022 second-rounder and relative newcomer (after setting a record for most goals scored ever by a U20 player in Finland’s top pro league, Liiga), powered in the third CVF goal late on a power play to make it 3-0 Firebirds at the first intermission. The sizeable Nyman deftly found his way to open space at the goal crease to not disappoint with a crisp pass from veteran Devin Shore behind the goal line. Wright started the scoring sequence while Nyman scored his first AHL playoffs goal and likely earned another night or more in the lineup.