PALM DESERT, Calif. – Just two games in and the Pacific Division Final was living up to its heavyweight billing. The top two teams in the American Hockey League have been on a collision course all season, and it opened up with a bang in Game One. With the split in Calgary, the series shifted to Coachella Valley for the next three games of the series, and the Firebirds were waiting with a secret weapon up their sleeve.
Forward Andrew Poturalski had been sidelined since just before the All-Star break in February with a lower-body injury that all but assuredly ended his 2022-23 season. For 34 regular season and 10 postseason games, Poturalski watched from the sidelines (and sometimes the broadcast booth) as the Firebirds continued to succeed on the ice. Through dedicated work from both Poturalski and the training staff in Coachella, #22 returned to the lineup on Monday night just in time for Game 3.
The result? An exhausting, emotional affair. The agony of an early deficit, the battle back to a tie game, and the absolute war of three overtime periods where the clock struck midnight on the Wranglers – the Firebirds finally breaking through after 111 minutes of gameplay for a dramatic 3-2 overtime victory to take a 2-1 series lead.
The Wranglers jumped on the Firebirds early and often, looking to establish a presence in the neutral zone that choked Coachella’s attack and kept the puck on their sticks in transition. Their effort led to a Matt Tennyson interference penalty, and the vaunted Calgary power play went to work. From the half wall, Walker Duehr found Adam Klapka on the doorstep, and his deflection past Joey Daccord to break the ice for the visitors at 1-0.
Calgary wasn’t content with laying back with the lead on the road – they continued to press and pepper Daccord with chances. In transition, Matthew Phillips found Jakob Pelletier streaking in between the Firebird defenders. Pelletier got a step on them, and as Daccord attempted a poke check he slid it through the five-hole for the huge two-goal lead that would hold up into the intermission. Pelletier’s marker made a goal in each game this series for him.
Pelts doing what pelts does best pic.twitter.com/GMkKU3CT7w
— y- Calgary Wranglers (@AHLWranglers) May 16, 2023
It was as perfect a road period for the Wranglers as they could have asked for – a goal on the man advantage and a goal at even strength while controlling the pace of play. MVP Dustin Wolf seemed to have hardly broke a sweat early on, and the 15-8 discrepancy in shots for Calgary seemed even more lopsided than the numbers indicated.
Coachella, however, has made a living on responding to adversity this postseason. Early on in the middle frame, the winds started to change as the Firebirds got the pucks in deep and got to work in the Wranglers’ zone. That effort from behind the net by Max McCormick would eventually turn into a chance at the point, and Gustav Olofsson blasted a one time shot that Wolf couldn’t pick up and put the Firebirds on the board just five minutes in to this one.
As the chances piled up for both sides, the physical play ramped up to an extra degree. Emotions from both teams would boil over into shoving matches after hard hits and routine plays at the net. Pelletier and Cameron Hughes got into one that saw both parties sit for roughing. Olofsson and Dryden Hunt would meet them in the box just a few minutes later.
Though Calgary held on to their one-goal lead, the tension was palpable as the two teams disembarked for the second intermission – the Wranglers’ position tenuous at best after their dominating first period. Wolf and Daccord had stepped up their respective games in net with some huge saves – who could continue to hold the fort as the final frame of a massive Game Three loomed?
The Wranglers put themselves behind the eight-ball early on in this one – Duehr ran into Daccord coming out to play the puck, and the call for goaltender interference put the Firebirds on a huge powerplay just two minutes into this one. The door was open, and Ryker Evans‘ shot from the point was deflected by none other than the captain McCormick, and the costly penalty had turned this one into a brand new hockey game with a 2-2 score.
TIED GAME 1-1🔥🚨 pic.twitter.com/hleGelriTe
— x – Coachella Valley Firebirds (@Firebirds) May 16, 2023
The crowd at Acrisure Arena had come to life after a pedestrian opening 20 minutes – they were vocal, rambunctious, and hungry for more. The Firebirds responded by pouring chances on the Wranglers, outshooting the visitors by a 14-5 margin as they took control of the pace. Calgary continued to play with fire in that third period as Ilya Solovyov took a holding penalty with just over two minutes left in a game that the Wranglers had total control over in the first. Luckily for Calgary, Wolf and the penalty killers stood as tall as ever and the two teams went into the locker rooms for extra hockey tied up at 2-2.
The first overtime period was absolutely dominated by the Wranglers. They came out with an intent to pour shots on from any and all angles, get to the front of the net and make life miserable for Daccord. Calgary did everything right in the opening frame – they outshot the Firebirds by a whopping 19-3 total in the 20 minutes of extra time. Coachella looked sluggish and it seemed a matter of not if but when the Wranglers would take home the victory.
Daccord said no time and time again. He came up with mystifying save after steady save and made them look easy at times. The frustration and exhaustion was evident on the face of the Wranglers’ shooters as the second frame began and the Firebirds began to battle back. Adjustments were made, legs got stronger, and they tested Wolf with frequency. Again – the answers were had by both goaltenders. A chess match with both sides in check – who would make the play to take the king?
Not one. Not two. Three overtimes in. One hundred and eleven minutes of play. Nearly two games worth of action and on Coachella Valley’s 51st shot of the game it was the Firebirds’ All-Stars that came through in the biggest moment. With McCormick screening Wolf, Evans wired a shot into the top shelf and the roof nearly came off Acrisure Arena at just about midnight local time. Fatigued legs came to life as the Firebirds joined in a jubilant throng of celebration with their fans screaming for a victory almost five hours in the making.
RYKER IS TONIGHT'S HERO WITH HIS OT GOAL pic.twitter.com/kaTzQgWeEm
— x – Coachella Valley Firebirds (@Firebirds) May 16, 2023
Game Three instantly became one for the storybooks, and the Coachella Valley Firebirds have another chapter in their already storied history of their inaugural season with a 3-2 triple overtime win to take a 2-1 series lead and push the Wranglers on the brink of elimination.
Calgary doesn’t expect to go away easy though, as head coach Mitch Love addressed after the game.
“We’ll reset and we got some things we can continue to look at as a team.” Coach Love told Calgary’s Olivia McDonald. “Our last two games have been better. Could’ve went either way tonight. Had a 2-0 lead on the road. It’s a fine line out there and we knew that was going to be the case in this series. I was proud of the guys tonight. It’s a lot of hockey. It’s not easy to do mentally or physically.”
- Ryker Evans – 1 goal, 1 assist
- Max McCormick – 1 goal, 1 assist
- Gustav Olafsson – 1 goal
- This one came right out of a Hollywood script. The return of a legend, the battle back from a two-goal deficit on home ice to a dramatic victory. It couldn’t have been any brighter for Coachella Valley, and it couldn’t have been any more painful for the Wranglers. The Firebirds now have two chances on home ice to clinch the series.
- For Calgary to come back in this one, they have to find a way to stay disciplined. While Coachella’s power play hasn’t been the dominating force in this one that it can be with the talent on the roster, they’re allowing far too many chances for the Firebirds to strike on the man advantage. Play tough, but play smart. Otherwise, how many more adjustments can you make? The Wranglers controlled heavy minutes of this game. Daccord turned in a legendary performance – does he have another in his pocket? One game at a time
- Coachella Valley is about to get even bulkier in the lineup. With the Seattle Kraken eliminated from the NHL playoffs, Jesper Froden and Tye Kartye are about to reinforce a potent Firebirds lineup that’s already added Poturalski and sports the top 5 postseason scorers in the league. If Calgary – with the AHL MVP in net and the #1 record in the league – can’t slow the Firebirds down, who in the league can have a hope?
Game Four drops Wednesday, May 17 at 7:00 PDT. If necessary, Game Five will be played on Friday, May 19th at 7:00 PDT. Both games will be played at Acrisure Arena in Coachella Valley.
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