In an emotional week for the Coachella Valley Firebirds and their beloved coach-for-now, Dan Bylsma, Wednesday proved time to get back to business in the American Hockey League’s 2024 Calder Cup Playoffs. Veteran John Hayden, a role model for younger Kraken prospects such as 2021 fifth-rounder and AHL rookie Jacob Melanson, fueled a Game 1 victory over Milwaukee in the league’s Western Conference final.

Hayden scored 15 minutes into the first period to stake a 1-0 Firebirds lead that lasted until the sixth minute of the third period when Central Division champ Milwaukee knotted the closely-contested, chippy affair. Hayden, with stellar playmaking from fellow veterans Devin Shore and Marian Studenic, re-established the one-goal lead three and a half minutes later. The Firebirds hung on from there, with goalie Chris Driedger turning in another Grade-A night, facing double-digit shots each period on the way to 37 saves.

Hayden’s first goal, on an early powerplay, featured a one-timer with veteran forward Cameron Hughes providing the perfect setup. Hayden’s game-winner was a product of his crashing the opposing goal as per usual. He put so much oomph into both scores that he was off-balance when he finished with his shots. The first was from a one-timer follow-through, and the second was because an opposing D-man was trying to muscle him out of shooting range (didn’t work, of course). Hayden now has four goals in eight postseason goals this spring.

Coachella Valley racked up its seventh straight playoffs win, winning three straight against the divisional foe Calgary Wranglers (AHL affiliate to the same-city Flames) after dropping the opening game of the best-of-five series, then sweeping another division rivial, Ontario (LA Kings) in three games.

Special teams played both a split-success and vital role for the Firebirds. The penalty killers snuffed all five Milwaukee power plays on the night while Coachella Valley converted on one-of-six tries with Hayden’s first goal scored at 14:55 of the opening period. Remarkably, it was CVF’s third power play of the game.

No doubt, Bylsma and his coaching staff will look at the six man-advantages, which varied in the number of scoring chances generated. Another review point: the visiting Admirals, an AHL fixture since 1970, dominated most of the middle period with Coachella Valley and Chris Driedger fending off 12 shots on goal compared to just two for the Firebirds until five straight shots on goal for the home team helped evened the shot totals. The period ended 12-10 SOG in favor of Milwaukee, but the visitors ramped it up again with 14 shots to eight for Coachella Valley in the final 20 minutes.

Game 2 of the West final is Friday night back at Acrisure Arena in the southern California desert before moving back to Milwaukee and the Midwest for Games 3, 4 and 5 (the latter if necessary). All games are televised on

Fun Firebirds Facts

For Friday’s Game 2 at Acrisure Arena in Palm Desert, American Idol winner and Indio native Abi Carter will sing the national anthem and drop the ceremonial puck. Indio is one of the nine towns in Coachella Valley, and her Idol performance is not to be missed. But have Kleenex nearby.

More fun: The Firebirds have a “Disco Dan Discount,” a $35 ticket deal in honor of Bylsma being named Kraken coach. The nickname still makes Bylsma smile. When a reporter at his Kraken press conference started his question by using the nickname in greeting, Bylsma quipped, “only took 11 minutes.”

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