While Coachella Valley veterans carried the goal-scoring load in the first three games of the second-round American Hockey League playoff series against division rival Calgary, Kraken prospects populated the scoresheet in Friday’s 3-0 home win. The Firebirds clinched the best-of-five series in four games, now moving on to the third round of the Calder Cup Playoffs to play Ontario (CA) in the Pacific Division final.

Coachella Valley jumped out to a commanding 2-0 lead in the first 20 minutes of Friday’s encounter. Defenseman Cale Fleury opened the scoring nearly seven minutes into the game, with AHL rookie Logan Morrison (signed as a free agent in March 2023) earning the primary assist on the game-winner, his second assist in four postseason games. Morrison and forward Luke Henman set up the play with an impressive quick-pass sequence that created time and space for Fleury from the left faceoff circle.

The Firebirds doubled the lead when AHL rookie and 2022 first-round draft pick Shane Wright scored his first pro postseason goal, working off assists from linemates Cameron Hughes and fellow AHL rookie Ryan Winterton (his first postseason point). Wright now has points in his last two Calder Cup contests. Hughes absorbed a check along the wall at center ice while head-manning the puck forward to Wright on a breakaway, using his quick release to beat goaltender Dustin Wolf.

Goaltender Chris Driedger and strong defensive play handled matters from there. Driedger, who starred for AHL Calgary but is playing in his first AHL postseason, made 31 saves to post the shutout. A third-period goal from veteran Devin Shore (he has scored in three straight games) provided more cushion in the third period.

After dropping the opening game of its best-of-five second-round series, Coachella Valley responded with three straight wins. Wednesday’s 7-5 home win over rival Calgary could be likened to any memorable sports event (pro or playground) in which the team with the puck or ball or last ups will win.

To wit: The Kraken affiliate Firebirds seized the lead four times in the pivotal Game 3 at Acrisure Arena in the Southern California desert. The visiting Wranglers scored first in the sixth minute of the game. By period’s end, veteran John Hayden’s goal tied matters at 1-1 and AHL rookie Jacob Melanson gave CVF its first lead. Fitting for those two to open the scoring since Melanson openly admits to wanting to model his pro game after Hayden’s two-way physical style of play.

Melanson turned more than a few heads with his first-ever AHL postseason goal. Just 42 seconds after Hayden’s mid-period score, the 2021 fifth-round draft choice skated behind the net for a wrap-around attempt, finishing with a shot that beat goaltender Dustin Wolf over the right shoulder. Luke Henman (the first player signed to a pro contract by the Kraken) earned the primary assist; he’s another teammate who has impressed Melanson with both his hard edge and work ethic on and off the ice. Both Henman and Melanson played and starred in the Quebec Maritimes Junior Hockey League.

From there, topsy met turvy more than a few times. Calgary tied the game at 2-2 three minutes into the second period. Firebirds forward Marian Studenic, who appeared in a pair of Kraken games this season, answered with his first 2024 postseason goal to make it 3-2 at the second intermission.

The third period started with Calgary scoring in the first minute to create a 3-3 tie before Studenic and CVF retook the lead at 6:19 with a shorthanded goal set up by the aforementioned Hayden. The 4-3 segment didn’t last long. Calgary scored a fourth straight power-play goal during the same two-minute penalty to make it 4-4 just 44 seconds after Studenic’s shorty.

All of this makes perfect sense, given the same two franchises played a five-game playoff series last spring, with the Firebirds winning Game 3 in triple overtime on a Ryker Evans goal and then prevailing in a Game 5 overtime to subsequently become Western Conference champions during the CVF inaugural season.

Just over a minute later, the 4-4 tie was snipped. Devin Shore (21 Kraken appearances in 2023-24) scored on a Firebirds power play to post 5-4 on the scoreboard. Shore, who tallied the game-winner in the Game 2 overtime win in Calgary, was assisted by veteran Cale Fleury (a frequent traveler on the Seattle-Palm Springs route as a Kraken reserve defenseman) and 2022 first-rounder Shane Wright (his first point of the postseason). On the same Calgary four-minute double minor for high-sticking, captain Max McCormick made it 6-4 good guys, with the primary assist going to Kraken D-man and AHL all-star Ryker Evans.

That totaled five goals in five-and-a-half minutes of play. Just two-and-a-half minutes later, the Wranglers scored a fifth goal to reduce the lead to a slim one goal. After that, Calgary couldn’t get anything past goaltender Chris Driedger and the Firebirds shot blockers. McCormick scored an empty-net goal with 10 seconds left to allow the raucous home crowd to fully exhale, uncross their fingers and head home thinking about how Coachella Valley can close out the series Friday night with a Game 5 Sunday if needed.

Bylsma said post-game that his team’s even-strength or 5-on-5 play was the best of this series, acknowledging penalties gave the visitors a chance to stay in the game. The Firebirds' penalty-kill units snuffed a perfect five-for-five Calgary power plays in Game 2 and will no doubt want to get back to that form on Friday. CVF players were whistled for the seven penalties, one on a bench too-many-men call, one on Shore for interference and the remaining five on prospects learning on the job as rookies in the AHL postseason: Ryan Winterton (hooking and interference), Logan Morrison (high-sticking), Evans (tripping) and Ville Ottavainen (delay of game with eight minutes, prompting a huge PK success to hold off any further tie-game scenario).

Firebirds head coach Dan Bylsma joked with the media post-game, saying “AI” (artificial intelligence) couldn’t have tracked this game. All of us reporter-types appreciate his support.

WHL Final Features Firkus, Jugnauth on Opposite Sides

Though both are part of a promising 2022 Kraken draft class, Moose Jaw forward Jagger Firkus and Portland defenseman Tyson Jugnauth are competing against each other in the Western Hockey League best-of-seven final to be the only Seattle prospect to play for the coveted Memorial Cup this spring. The Cup tournament, with the Saginaw (MI) Spirit of the Ontario Hockey League as the host team, brings together champions of the WHL, OHL and Quebec Maritimes Junior Hockey League to determine the overarching Canadian Hockey League champion every June. Kraken prospects Logan Morrison and Ryan Winterton have played for the Cup in recent years.

Moose Jaw won a 3-2 thriller in Game 1 at Portland Friday, with Game 2 slated for Saturday night in Oregon. Firkus earned the primary assist on Moose Jaw’s second goal, which established a 2-0 lead in the second period that Portland equalized by early-third period. Moose Jaw scored the game-winner with three minutes remaining in regulation.

Jugnauth and his Portland teammates dispensed with No. 1 seed Prince George in six games, winning up in B.C. Monday. But becoming WHL Western Conference champions was far from easy for the Winterhawks, long-time rivals of local WHL teams Seattle and Everett. Portland broke a scoreless tie with one minute left in the second period. Prince George scored the equalizer in front of a high-decibel home crowd just under six minutes into the final period of regulation.

The next goal ended the series five-plus minutes into the second overtime for a 2-1 Portland victory. After Prince George had fired its 49th shot on goal, saved by Portland goalie Joshua Ravensbergen, 2022 sixth-rounder Jugnauth seized the rebound net front to quickly transition a pass up-ice to teammate Josh Muri in the neutral zone. Muri sped into the offensive zone to find Josh Davies, who scored the game-winner. Jugnauth’s assist was his 11th in 15 postseason games to go along with four goals.

As for Firkus, he now has 12 goals and 16 assists for 28 points in 17 playoff games, tied with teammate and defenseman Denton Mateychuk for the WHL postseason scoring lead. Firkus and Mateychuk (picked 12th overall by Columbus in 2022) frequently assist on each other’s goals.

On Tuesday, the Kraken’s 2022 second-rounder (35th overall) notched an important score that put the Moose Jaw Warriors up, 2-1, midway into the third period. Taking a net-front pass from a teammate who leveraged a turnover, Firkus didn’t disappoint, lifting a quick-release shot past Saskatoon goalie Evan Gardner. But the top-seed Saskatoon delighted the home faithful with a tying goal with three minutes remaining. In overtime, with Firkus and linemates on the ice for the first shift, Moose Jaw advanced with a game-winning goal at the 0:36 mark.

After Game 2 on Saturday, the two squads then head up to Moose Jaw, SK, for Games 3 and 4 (May 14 and 15), plus Game 5 (May 17) if necessary. Games 6 and 7, if needed will be back in Portland and dates have not yet been announced.