PALM SPRINGS, Ca. – The Hershey Bears are the kings of the Eastern Conference and will duke it out with their west coast counterparts, the Coachella Valley Firebirds, in the championship round. It’s been a historic span of time since the Bears last won a championship, and the team feels due after being unable to compete for it in recent times. It’s an essential step for Hershey and Coachella Valley and the Washington and Seattle organizations, with spots open at the big clubs in the fall. The championship series marks the first time a team from the Atlantic Division faces off with a Pacific Division opponent in the modern era, adding another layer of history to a match-up between the American Hockey League’s oldest and newest teams. The series will undoubtedly go down as one of the longest-distance battles in history, with about 2,520 miles separating two teams on either end of the continental United States. Both teams want to carve out their own slice of history in this series when the Calder Cup is lifted this month.
Final Regular Season Records:
Coachella Valley Firebirds: 48-17-5-2, 103 points, 2nd Pacific
Hershey Bears: 44-19-5-4, 97 points, 2nd Atlantic
How They Got Here:
The lore for this series dates back to a year ago when the Seattle Kraken had a dual affiliation with the Florida Panthers in their first season, sharing the Charlotte Checkers as their AHL affiliate. This led to some of their top players getting exposure to the Eastern Conference, with top scorers like Kole Lind, Max McCormick, and Alexander True spending time with Charlotte alongside goaltender Joey Daccord and forward Carsen Twarynski. As part of that group, the Checkers and Bears dueled eight times over the regular season, with Charlotte taking five of those games. The Firebirds boast Andrew Poturalski, who needs no introduction entering his third straight Calder Cup Finals appearance, having knocked off the Bears as a Charlotte Checkers skater in 2019. The most familiar player of all of these is Eddie Wittchow, who played in three seasons with the Bears before signing with the Firebirds over the summer with 56 games played in the regular season.
It’s easy to forget that the Coachella Valley Firebirds are in their inaugural season but have overcome tremendous odds to get to this point. The team opened its season without a home as Acrisure Arena was not complete until just before Christmas, leaving them to play “home games” in a few different venues and the rest of that schedule on the road. That adversity wasn’t enough to prevent the team from going 48-17-5-2 throughout 72 games played, good for 103 points as one of just two teams to hit triple digits over the course of the regular season and finishing second overall in the AHL. It was an impressive start for the league’s newest team, with a lot of credit to their veterans for leading them to a strong finish.
No one could have predicted the way their playoff run has gone. Despite the second-place finish, the Firebirds still had to play the Tucson Roadrunners in the play-in opening round and had to win a decisive third game to advance. A round later, they found themselves on the brink of elimination to the Colorado Eagles but rattled off two wins to take the series and advance to the Pacific Division Final. That round was their biggest test yet as they went toe-to-toe with the league’s top team. Poturalski returned to action for the first time in four months after being shut down with a lower-body injury in January and scored the series-winning goal in overtime of the decisive Game Five to lift the Firebirds to the Western Conference Finals.
“I was doing research on everything I could possibly do to speed up the healing process,” Poturalski said on The Holy GrAHL podcast. “There’s only so much you can do, you have to let your body heal, but I did a ton of different stuff and I eventually made it back. It was a crazy process and for it to all come together to get back and play and win against Calgary was so cool.”
The Firebirds traded home wins with the Milwaukee Admirals in the following series. Still, the series shifted in Game Five as Coachella Valley erased an early deficit and made a 2-1 lead stand up for a massive road win. That momentum translated to a sixth game where the Firebirds snuffed out the Admirals, with Daccord playing a solid game and hanging onto a lead to get the job done. They look to continue their strong play to give Coachella Valley a Calder Cup to top off their inaugural season, a rare feat for a new club to accomplish. That sets them at the other end of the spectrum from Hershey’s long tenure as the oldest team in the league at 85 years of continuous play and one of the most unusual championship matchups as a result.
Hershey punched their ticket to the final round for the 24th time in franchise history on Friday night, playing hockey in June for the first time since 2016. The Bears earned a difficult 1-0 win with another new hero emerging as Shane Gersich scored the only goal, and Hunter Shepard earned his second shutout of the series against Rochester. It marked just the second time the Bears defeated the Americans in a playoff series, as the only other series win happened back in 1994, nearly 30 years ago. The previous series wins against Charlotte and Hartford have combined to put Hershey four wins away from a championship. It’s been quite some time since the Bears won a game in the final round of the AHL’s playoff bracket, dating back to when current Hershey Vice President of Hockey Operations Bryan Helmer lifted the trophy as a player back in 2010.
“It’s a great feeling, I don’t know what to say,” an exuberant Helmer said after the Rochester series. “I’m just so excited right now. Man, it’s good to be back! I think those guys already know that this might be the last time they’re all together, they have a chance to win the Calder Cup together, they’re going to be ready.”
It’s been a long time coming for this group of players, many of whom were in Hershey when a very strong 2019-20 team saw their season cut short due to the COVID-19 pandemic. When the season was shut down, the Bears were battling with the Providence Bruins for the top spot in the Atlantic Division and the Eastern Conference as a whole with aspirations for a Calder Cup. It was a resurgence of sorts for the Bears, two years removed from missing the postseason entirely as a new group of prospects, including Gersich, took the reins in hopes of guiding the Chocolate and White back to the success the organization has been known for.
“It’s my fifth year here and we’ve had some really good teams that haven’t been able to go this far,” Gersich said. “It’s been special this year, with how tight our group has been, there’s been some ups and downs and it feels like we can do something really special.”
It started with the long-awaited hiring of head coach Todd Nelson, a reunion of sorts after he spent one season in the Sweetest Place on Earth as a player during the 1995-96 season. Nelson coached Helmer for a time after the Bears won the Calder Cup in 2010 with the Oklahoma City Barons, and the two formed a strong bond that would come into play that summer. The Bears needed a coach, and Nelson was available after departing from the Dallas Stars, leading to his hiring as the 28th head coach in franchise history. Nelson had some connections to the current team, having won the Calder Cup with Hershey’s current captain.
“Fans, not just one fan, three or four different occasions it’s been mentioned that it’s been a while since a Cup came home to Hershey,” Nelson mentioned at the time, nearly a year ago. “We’re all in this game to win, obviously we have to develop players for Washington, but I think winning is a form of development, we want to have a winning culture here and we owe it to the people of Hershey who support the Hershey Bears to have a winning club.”
Hershey pushed in free agency, signing the likes of former AHL scoring champion Sam Anas and skilled defenseman Aaron Ness, who was part of the last Bears squad to get to this point in 2016. The Bears had already signed Ethen Frank and Julian Napravnik to contracts for the year, and the additions of coveted Capitals prospects Hendrix Lapierre and Vincent Iorio. Depth signings have turned out to be pivotal ones for Hershey as players like Jake Massie and Logan Day have been integral to the run, as has Gersich, who signed an AHL contract with the team over the summer. Washington’s lineup remained steady, allowing Connor McMichael to return to Hershey as another massive addition.
It’s been a total team effort for the Bears in these playoffs. Eighteen different skaters have put the puck in the back of the net to get to this point, even dealing with injuries to significant players like Mike Sgarbossa. It’s no small feat to succeed the way the Bears have without their top point producer in the regular season, who hasn’t been able to dress or even practice since the team defeated the Charlotte Checkers in four games to open the postseason. The Chocolate and White swept the Hartford Wolf Pack in the Atlantic Division Final, a tall ask considering that Hartford defeated both a strong Springfield group and the Eastern Conference’s top regular-season club in Providence. Hershey’s defense stood tall in the face of one of the East’s top offensive teams in the Rochester Americans, who the Bears dispatched in six games, including two shutouts. In his first year behind Hershey’s bench, Nelson made good on his promise to get the Bears to the next level.
“You saw how hard the guys practiced today,” Nelson said. “They all know what’s at stake. For them to have this experience, it’s going to benefit them with their careers moving forward, and I’ve always believed in that. I believe winning is a form of development because if they can’t win in this environment, in the Calder Cup Playoffs, then they won’t be able to do it in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.”
Facing an opponent from the Western Conference will be a new test for the Bears, with the Chocolate and White not crossing over with any of those teams throughout the regular season. Even in the face of such uncertainty, the Bears won’t back down as they have over the course of these playoffs, and their perfect record of 6-0 on the road should give their opponent as much to be concerned about as when they come to Giant Center for that portion of the playoffs. This Hershey group will try to accomplish something special and add a new chapter to Bears lore when the puck drops in the final round.
Game One: Hershey Bears at COACHELLA VALLEY FIREBIRDS, Thursday, June 8 at 7:00 p.m. PDT/10:00 p.m. EDT
Game Two: Hershey Bears at COACHELLA VALLEY FIREBIRDS, Saturday, June 10 at 7:00 p.m. PDT/10:00 p.m. EDT
Game Three: Coachella Valley Firebirds at HERSHEY BEARS, Tuesday, June 13 at 4:00 p.m. PDT/7:00 p.m. EDT
Game Four: Coachella Valley Firebirds at HERSHEY BEARS, Thursday, June 15 at 4:00 p.m. PDT/7:00 p.m. EDT
Game Five (if necessary): Coachella Valley Firebirds at HERSHEY BEARS, Saturday, June 17 at 4:00 p.m. PDT/7:00 p.m. EDT
Game Six (if necessary): Hershey Bears at COACHELLA VALLEY FIREBIRDS, Monday, June 19 at 7:00 p.m. PDT/10:00 p.m. EDT
Game Seven (if necessary): Hershey Bears at COACHELLA VALLEY FIREBIRDS, Wednesday, June 21 at 7:00 p.m. PDT/10:00 p.m. EDT
How Coachella Valley Wins:
The Firebirds will win the series if their offense can take over as it has over the course of the regular season and playoffs. Hershey’s defense has been stout for the majority of the playoffs so far, but Coachella Valley is perhaps the deepest team they will have faced to this point. It sounds simple, but if they can light the lamp enough times, it’ll be hard for anyone to keep up with them.
How Hershey Wins:
For the Bears, it’s crucial to remember their series win over the Rochester Americans. The Bears made the necessary adjustments to limit the Amerks over the course of six games, and it will again fall to their defensive play. Many teams have tried and failed to match the Firebirds in terms of total goals, and it’ll be up to the Bears to find another way in this series.
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