Sports stats

 Coachella Valley Firebirds

Firebirds Poised for Playoffs

April 16, 2024 - American Hockey League (AHL)
Coachella Valley Firebirds News Release

The Firebirds' young history continues to be defined by a narrative of exceeding expectations.

After the 'Birds' 3-1 win over Ontario on April 10 locked-up the first Pacific Division title in franchise history, CV head coach Dan Bylsma aptly lauded a second period performance which proved a coalescence of a team trending toward dominance since the turn to the 2024 calendar.

"That was probably our best second period of the year," Bylsma said after the clinching win. "It was exactly how we want to play, exactly where we want to play it."

After a suspect, if not disappointing 9-7 mark on the season through October and November play, the 'Birds have found full soar.

"You don't care too much how you start. You care about how you finish; how you play your last game," Troy Bodie, Firebirds' vice president of hockey operations, said the day after CV's Pac-clinching win. "And I think we're playing our best hockey right now going into the playoffs, which is really what you strive for."

To wit, in 2024, the Firebirds have gone 25-4-4-4 and, more recently, have accrued standing points in 21 of their last 22 games, and in 31 of their past 33 contests.

"There are a lot of theories as to the why, but I think we started very slow," Bodie said of the 'Birds' seasonal arc. "And it was a strange start because we were so hot on the road - but ice-cold at home, which can be frustrating for the fans. Yeah, we kind of stumbled out of the gates in a lot of ways, but, when you go all the way to the finals, there can be a bit of a hangover: guys aren't fully rested; guys aren't fully healed; a lot of new, young guys in the lineup; and so, sometimes, you kind of have to find yourself."

Identity found over the course of the season, Bodie sees the sophomore version of the 'Birds as a team particularly "centered."

"I think there a lot of different things about our team this year," the exec continued. "I think we're stronger down the middle this year. Obviously, Andrew Poturalski is a massive player in this league; we've got Devin Shore, who's an NHL player, and we're very lucky to have him; and we've got one of the top NHL prospects in Shane Wright. So I think our middle is very deep."

Bodie further sees a squad which is primed for the gritty and grinding demands of postseason play.

"And I think we are playing more physical," he added, "and a number of guys brining that to the table, with Hayden, Melanson, McCormick and Kole Lind. Everyone is kind of squashing things a lot earlier this year."

Between the pipes, Bodie is also quick to state his belief that CV is well-situated to play the franchise's first playoff game sans Joey Daccord, who started all 26 of the 'Birds' postseason games last year (accounting for 1,648 minutes in the playoff net).

"We had a great goalie in Joey last year, but Chris Driedger is just as good," Bodie said succinctly. "And when Driedger goes out and Ales Stezka comes in, he pretty much does the same thing and stops a bunch of pucks."

Four days after the Pacific clinch, CV's 2-1 win over San Diego on April 14 secured the best record in the Western Conference, a key accomplishment for home ice honors should the Firebirds again advance to the conference finals.

Now, with just three games remaining on the regular season slate, the 'Birds are pacing to best the franchise's 103-point season tally from the inaugural campaign.

Further comparison finds added reason for postseason optimism. Though CV, with 242 goals to-date, is unlikely to match its 257 goals from last season (third best in the AHL), the Firebirds are pacing to allow fewer scores; in 2022-23, the 'Birds gave up 194 regular season goals, while this season's squad has allowed 171 (again, with three games to play).

Sure to aid the scoring punch and playoff push is the return of four key contributors who accrued NHL experience this season: frontliners Wright (eight games with Kraken), Ryan Winterton (nine games), Logan Morrison (four games), along with defensive AHL All-Star, Ryker Evans (34 games, with two Seattle contests remaining).

With the trio of forwards already back on the 'Birds' roster, Evans should return after Seattle concludes its campaign on April 18.

"Every player that goes up (to the NHL) and then comes back down, they say speed is the biggest thing," explained Bodie. "And it's not just skating fast, it's the speed at which plays are made, the speed at which decisions happen. When players come back down to the AHL, things are a little bit slower, just by nature of the two leagues. Having the four players up there, when they're back here and come playoffs, there will hopefully be just a little extra pep ion the step from that experience."

With the Pacific title comes the accompany bye through the first round of the playoffs, placing the 'Birds in the ensuing best-of-five Division Semifinal round, where CV will eventually face-off against the lowest-seeded first round winner.

According to both Bodie and Bylsma, bye scheduling should see the 'Birds with nine days off between their regular season finale on April 21 and the playoff opener.

Worthy of calendar asides, however: Last year's Pac winner, Calgary, had 11 days between games; an addition, the CV fan base may want to prep itself for the fact that, per AHL postseason geographical travel rules, the Firebirds, akin to last year's Divisional Semifinal vs. Colorado, may potentially elect to begin their best-of-five series with a pair of games on the road, followed by a trio of home games, if necessary.

Translation: The 'Birds' Acrisure Arena nest may have some real down time before the storm.

Not that the brass is worried about some extra time off.

"Having the bye is nothing but a good thing; we're happy to have that locked up," Bodie said. "Getting the mental rest, getting the physical rest and just letting the bumps and bruises heal. And, yeah, with that many days off, you could come back a little bit rusty, but I feel our group has always shown, in the first game after a long break, they come out guns blazing. It's just such a focused group."

While he acknowledges the still-near and clear memory of last season's conclusion, as this year's playoff journey nears its onset anew, Bodie sees the seasonal narrative as more process than result. "What happened last year, how great it was and then the little bit . . . sour ending of the last game, it's kind of stuck with a lot of us," concluded Bodie. "And it's definitely stuck with the coaching staff and the players who were here last year. And not to sound super cliché, but I think what has gotten us to the point this year is just focusing on the controllables, playing the best hockey we can on a game day and just not worrying about anything else."

• Discuss this story on the American Hockey League message board...

American Hockey League Stories from April 16, 2024

The opinions expressed in this release are those of the organization issuing it, and do not necessarily reflect the thoughts or opinions of OurSports Central or its staff.

OurSports Central