CALGARY, Alberta – It’s the fight of the century.
The only two teams to hit the 100-point mark in the 2022/23 American Hockey League season are set to do battle in the Pacific Division Final, with the winner moving on to the Western Conference Finals. As expected with two teams with the #1 and #2 record in the league, the rosters are bursting with star power. One side in Coachella features 5 of the top 9 postseason scorers heading into this round, while Calgary just has the two-time AHL Goaltender of the Year and 2022/23 Most Valuable Player Dustin Wolf staring down opposing shooters. One side has two-time Coach of the Year in Mitch Love while his counterpart Dan Bylsma won a Stanley Cup.
Both Calgary and Coachella look unbeatable on paper. Unfortunately, one of them has to lose this series. When two massive forces meet, where does one find the advantage?
Final Regular Season Records:
Calgary: 51-17-3-1 (1st in AHL)
Coachella Valley: 48-17-5-2 (2nd in AHL)
How They Got Here:
In getting the top seed in the Pacific Division, Calgary was matched up with four-seed Abbotsford in their second-round matchup. The series was anything but a cakewalk for the juggernaut Wranglers, as the Canucks forced them to overtime in both games in Calgary and managed to steal a victory with an overwhelming physical show in Game Three. However, the Wranglers do as top teams do with an elite response to adversity to dispatch the Canucks in four games.
Coachella has had a few close calls. After being pushed the distance by a humbling Tucson Roadrunners team in the first round, the Firebirds saw themselves down 2-1 to the Colorado Eagles and on the brink of elimination. Like the Wranglers, though, the Firebirds showed true grit when they battled back to tie the series and blow Colorado out in the deciding Game Five. Kole Lind and Max McCormick are the only players to hit double-digit point totals in this postseason so far, leading a high-powered attack into a massive series.
Game One: Coachella Valley at CALGARY – Thursday, May 11th 7:05 MDT
Game Two: Coachella Valley at CALGARY – Friday, May 12th 7:05 MDT
Game Three: Calgary at COACHELLA VALLEY – Monday, May 15th 7:00 PDT
*Game Four: Calgary at COACHELLA VALLEY – Wednesday, May 17th 7:00 PDT
*Game Five: Calgary at COACHELLA VALLEY – Friday, May 19th 7:00 PDT
Season Series Recap:
The season series was as evenly matched as you could ask leading into the Pacific Division Final. Both teams, jostling with one another all season for top seeding, went 4-4 over the eight game series. Coachella caught Calgary napping to open the season, taking two wins over the Wranglers and their All-Star goaltender in Wolf with nine goals in the opening weekend. The two teams saw each other early and often, but since November there have been just two games between the two front runners. Calgary won both of those by the combined score of 6-2.
Matthew Phillips was the star of the show for Calgary. He paced all skaters in the season series with 12 points in the 8 games, followed with 7 points each for Jakob Pelletier and captain Brett Sutter. Wolf had an uncharacteristic series against Coachella all season, sporting a 3.25 GAA and .895 save percentage against the division rival against his season-long stats of 2.09 and .932, respectively.
Coachella’s Lind shared the pace of points during the series along with Andrew Poturalski, who has been sidelined with an injury since the All-Star break. Both Lind and Poturalski had 9 points against Calgary, while Joey Daccord got the bulk of the starts against the Wranglers and posted a 3-2 record.
How Calgary Wins:
Possess the puck. Drawing up a game plan to defend the Firebirds’ attack from all angles is short of impossible, even with the talent that Calgary possesses up and down their roster. The best way to keep their offense off Calgary’s heels and out of Wolf’s face is to keep the puck in the Coachella zone. They can’t hurt you from 200 feet away, and Calgary has the personnel to pitch a tent in the offensive zone and dictate how the games will be played. Extended zone time with pucks in deep can chip away at Coachella’s legs and wear them down before they even get to Wolf’s net.
Respond. This is going to be a heavyweight matchup of solid haymakers being thrown by one championship fighter to another. Who can peel themselves off the mat and respond? Coachella’s answered questions of that adversity while Calgary hasn’t had to battle from a series deficit yet. If they do fall behind, they need to get up. If Coachella hammers them in the jaw, they need to pick themselves up and throw one right back.
How Coachella Valley Wins:
Follow the Abbotsford blueprint. The Canucks had the Wranglers on the ropes more than Calgary would like to admit. They attacked the Wranglers physically, forced their defense into turnovers, and crashed the net and made life difficult for Wolf. Coachella has to be energetic and ultra-aggressive on the forecheck. They need to impose their will physically on Calgary’s skill players and knock them off their game. Make them think twice about going into the corners or to the front of the net.
A Poturalski return – while wildly unlikely – doesn’t remain out of the question. Poturalski has hoisted back-to-back Calder Cups and his introduction into this series would energize the Firebirds lineup and give their team an entirely different look to attack that has already haunted a Calgary affiliate during last season’s Calder run for the Chicago Wolves. Can Calgary exorcise a demon, or will the ghosts of playoff past doom them once more? It’s a big “if” but it would be a page out of Hollywood for a team just two hours away.
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