The Hershey Bears dispatched the Rochester Americans in six games in the Eastern Conference Finals to advance to the Calder Cup Finals for the first time since 2016. The oldest American Hockey League (AHL) franchise will now face the league’s newest member, the Coachella Valley Firebirds, in the championship round. The Firebirds defeated the Milwaukee Admirals in six games to claim the Western Conference title.
The sojourn to the west coast will not be Hershey’s first trip to California, but it will be their first trip to the Golden State to face AHL competition. During the 1965-1966 season, the Bears played the San Francisco Seals and the Los Angeles Blades of the Western Hockey League as part of an interlocking schedule. The chocolate and white prevailed over the Seals 5-4 on December 9th and then bested the Blades 3-2 the following night. Since neither of those teams were members of the AHL, the Calder Cup Finals will mark Hershey’s first ever AHL matchup with a team from California.
Game 1: Thursday, June 8, Hershey @ Coachella Valley – 10 p.m.
Game 2: Saturday, June 10, Hershey @ Coachella Valley – 10 p.m.
Game 3: Tuesday, June 13, Coachella Valley @ Hershey – 7 p.m.
Game 4: Thursday, June 15, Coachella Valley @ Hershey – 7 p.m.
Game 5: Saturday, June 17, Coachella Valley @ Hershey – 7 p.m. *
Game 6: Monday, June 19, Hershey @ Coachella Valley – 10 p.m.
Game 7: Wednesday, June 21, Hershey @ Coachella Valley – 10 p.m. *
* If Necessary
Playoff Series History
This is the first ever meeting between the Hershey Bears and the Coachella Valley Firebirds.
How They Got Here
The Firebirds opened their first ever playoff run with a matchup against the Tucson Roadrunners in the Pacific Division First Round. In their inaugural home playoff game, Coachella Valley routed the Roadrunners, 5-1 with Max McCormick tallying a pair of power play goals. Tucson rebounded to win game two on their home ice, scoring three times in the first period en route to a 3-2 triumph. With their season on the line in a winner-take-all game three, the Firebirds exploded for four first period goals and cruised to a series-clinching, 5-1 victory.
In the Pacific Division Semifinals, Coachella Valley squared off with the Colorado Eagles. The Firebirds potted two goals in each period and skated to a 6-2 win in Colorado in game one. The Eagles responded to even the series with a goal with four minutes left in regulation to prevail 3-2. Colorado pushed Coachella Valley to the brink of elimination by defeating the Firebirds 1-0 in overtime in game three. With the game tied late in the third period, Alexander True potted a shorthanded goal with 2:32 left in the third period to pull out a 4-3 win to force a game five. Coachella Valley put the Eagles away early with three first period goals and cruised to a 5-0 win.
The Pacific Division Finals posed a challenge for the Firebirds as they faced the best team in the AHL during the regular season, the Calgary Wranglers. Coachella Valley sent a message in game one. The Firebirds netted three first period goals in Calgary and topped the Wranglers, 6-3. McCormick and Kole Lind led the way with two goals each. Calgary captured game two, never trailing in a 3-2 victory. Game three would prove to be an epic contest between the two sides. The Wranglers were up 2-0, but Coachella Valley rallied to force overtime. The contest would take three extra sessions to determine the winner. Finally, Ryker Evans delivered a 3-2, triple overtime win for the Firebirds when he found the back of the net at the 11:22 point of the third overtime. Calgary was not deflated and shutout Coachella Valley 1-0 to even the series at two games each. Playing in a winner take all game for the third consecutive series, the Firebirds were on the road for the first time in that scenario. The Wranglers held a 5-4 edge in the third period when Jeremy McKenna equalized for Coachella Valley with 5:44 remaining in the third. Former AHL Most Valuable Player Andrew Poturalski scored the series-clincher in overtime to propel the Firebirds onward.
Coachella Valley kickstarted the Western Conference Finals against the Milwaukee Admirals by tallying four times in the third period after trailing in the third period. McCormick recorded a hat trick, including the game-winning goal, in the frame to lift the Firebirds to a 3-1 win. McCormick again would provide the winner in game two as Coachella Valley triumphed 5-3 to head to Milwaukee up two games to none. The Admirals fell behind 1-0 at home in game three, but would score the next three goals to get back in the series with a 3-1 victory. Milwaukee evened the series by scoring two goals on the power play and adding another one shorthanded to take game four by a score of 5-2. Game five was the last one in Wisconsin and the Admirals needed to win to go back to California without having to win twice on the road. Milwaukee led 1-0 on a Kiefer Sherwood power play marker in the first stanza, but the Firebirds answered with two goals in the second and held on for a 2-1 win. McCormick once again netted the winning tally as Coachella Valley took a three games to two series lead. Back home for game six, the Firebirds raced out to a 2-0 advantage after one and were up 3-1 after 40 minutes. The Admirals did not go quietly and put up a fight in the third by netting a pair of goals, but Tye Kartye’s power play marker in the final frame would be the difference as the Firebirds captured the Western Conference crown with a 4-3 victory.
Following a first round bye, the Bears started their playoff campaign against the Charlotte Checkers in the Atlantic Division Semifinals. Hershey jumped out to a 4-0 lead in game one in Charlotte and skated to a 5-2 win. Hunter Shepard allowed the chocolate and white to overcome a slow start in game two and the Bears tallied five times in the final two frames to prevail 5-1 and head home up two games to none. In game three, Hershey recorded just four first period shots, but still managed to score first in the second. However, two breakaway goals in the second period put the Checkers in front and then the Bears’ power play failed on multiple third period chances. Charlotte fought off elimination with a 2-1 triumph. Game four did not begin well for Hershey. The offense was asleep with a mere two shots on goal in the opening frame. The Checkers jumped out to a 2-0 lead in the opening period and had the chocolate and white on their heels. Then, Beck Malenstyn delivered a huge hit that broke a pane of glass behind the goal. The break in action stunted the momentum of Charlotte. The Bears woke up in the second and potted two goals in the middle stanza to tie the game at two. Aliaksei Protas tallied twice in a minute and 58 second span in the third frame to give Hershey a lead. Two empty net goals sealed the series, as the Bears prevailed 6-2.
Moving onto the Atlantic Division Finals against the Hartford Wolf Pack, Hershey came out flying in the first period of game one at home. The Bears outshot the Wolf Pack 17 to 3. However, the Bears could not solve Dylan Garand and Hartford converted on a power play to hold a 1-0 edge after one period. The Wolf Pack increased their advantage to 2-0 on an early second period power play goal by Jonny Brodzinski. Heading into the third period, down by two, Hershey cut their deficit in half on a Logan Day power play tally 2:52 into the third. With Shepard heading to the bench for an extra attacker, Connor McMichael deflected a Jake Massie shot to tie the game at two with 2:09 remaining in regulation to force overtime. In the extra session, Henrik Borgstrom (playing for the first time in these playoffs) snapped a shot over the blocker of Garand to provide the Bears with a 3-2 overtime win. Game two did not require a rally from the chocolate and white. Mason Morelli gave Hershey the lead with a power play goal at the 3:12 mark of the first period. Will Cuylle equalized on the man advantage later in the period, but Beck Malenstyn restored the lead for the Bears with a marker one minute and 12 seconds later. The chocolate and white received goals from Mike Vecchione and Hendrix Lapierre to up their advantage to 4-1. Adam Clendening netted for Hartford late, but Hershey took game two by a score of 4-2.
On the road for game three, the Bears were dominated by the Wolf Pack in the first period. Hartford outshot the chocolate and white, 13 to 4. Shepard kept his team in the game, only surrendering a goal to Turner Elson. With four minutes and 55 seconds left in the second, the chocolate and white found the equalizer. Borgstrom was hooked in his own zone and chipped the puck to Vecchione in front of the Hartford bench. A delayed penalty was being called on Tanner Fritz, but Vecchione hit Vincent Iorio streaking into the offensive zone. Iorio moved into the right circle and wristed a shot over Louis Domingue’s blocker to make it a 1-1 contest. Hershey had a chance to take the lead 3:28 into the third period when Sam Anas was awarded a penalty shot after being hooked on a breakaway. Anas was denied by a glove save by Dominigue. Less than a minute after Anas’ penalty shot bid, the Bears did jump ahead. The sides were playing four-on-four after a Cuylle hooking penalty canceled out Malenstyn’s hooking infraction. Vecchione picked Ty Emberson’s pocket in the right corner and sent a feed to Lucas Johansen at the inside of the left circle. Johansen wristed his shot over the glove of Domingue to give Hershey a 2-1 edge. At the 7:25 point of the third, Pilon rifled home a rebound from a McMichael shot to extend the lead to 3-1. Shepard would not allow the Wolf Pack to get back into the game and the Bears advanced with a 3-1 victory.
The opening contest of the Eastern Conference Finals did not go well for Hershey. The Rochester Americans scored 14 seconds into the game on a Joseph Cecconi snapshot and led 2-0 after one period. Rochester tallied early in the second frame as well and held a 4-0 advantage after 40 minutes. Shepard was pulled in favor of Zach Fucale after the fourth goal. The Bears failed to move the puck quickly to open shooting lanes and struggled to get shots through the Americans as they collapsed on goalie Malcom Subban. The chocolate and white managed to avoid the shutout with an Aaron Ness marker in the third period, but an empty net goal provided the final scoreline of 5-1.
Hershey and Shepard rebounded with a much better effort in game two. The Bears gained their first advantage of the series with 3:55 left in the second period. Connor McMichael fed a pass to Henrik Borgstrom above the right circle. Borgstrom glided forward and wristed a shot over the shoulder of Subban, who was screened by Morelli, for a power play goal to make it 1-0 Hershey. Late in the second, the fourth line upped the Bears’ lead to 2-0. Riley Sutter gathered the puck along the goal line in the left corner and dropped a feed back to Beck Malenstyn at the left faceoff dot. Malenstyn one-timed his shot by Subban at the near post to put the chocolate and white up 2-0 with 31.7 seconds remaining in the second. Rochester failed to solve Shepard and the netminder completed his 24-save shutout. Hershey prevailed 2-0 to even the series.
In game three, the chocolate and white opened the scoring with eight minutes and 10 seconds remaining in the first period. Aliaksei Protas feathered a pass from above the right circle to Logan Day at the center point. Day one-timed his shot through traffic and over the blocker of Subban to give Hershey a 1-0 lead. The Bears doubled their advantage at the 5:36 point of the second period. Day slid a feed to Sam Anas above the right circle. Anas moved towards the center and snapped a shot through a Protas screen that went over the glove of Subban for a power play tally to put Hershey up 2-1. Two minutes and 21 seconds later, Zach Metsa flung a shot from the right point through heavy traffic and in to make it a 2-1 game. The Bears restored their two-goal advantage with a marker with nine minutes and 33 seconds remaining in the middle frame. Lucas Johansen powered down the left wing and drove to the goal line. He sent a pass to the front of the net. McMichael got in front of Lawrence Pilut and deflected Johansen’s feed through the five-hole of Subban for a 3-2 Bears’ lead. Rochester drew within one at 3-2 with seven minutes and 36 gone in the third. Michael Mersch threw a shot at the net. Shepard stopped Mersch’s shot, but kicked out a rebound. Sean Malone lifted a shot up under the crossbar. After Malone’s goal, the Americans controlled much of the play and hemmed the chocolate and white in. However, Hershey did not break. Shepard came up with four big saves and the Bears did a good job of blocking shots. Riley Sutter cleared the puck off the left boards and out of the zone. Protas skated onto the puck and glided in on goal. Protas slid the puck in. The empty net marker sealed a 4-2 Hershey victory in game three.
In Rochester for game three, the Americans came out with energy in front of their home fans and scored the first goal 3:01 into the opening period when Linus Weissbach tapped in a rebound off a Filip Cederqvist shot. Weissback redirected a Matt Bartkowski shot in the second stanza to put Rochester ahead 2-0 heading into the third. The Bears got onto the scoreboard with 9:54 left in the third period. Protas controlled the puck along the goal line and passed to Johansen cutting down the center. Johansen mishandled the puck, but managed to tap the puck past Subban to bring Hershey within one at 2-1. A minute and 55 seconds later, the Bears equalized. McMichael possessed the puck below the left circle and slipped a pass to Logan Day jumping into the play. Day snapped his shot over the glove of a sprawled Subban to make it a 2-2 game. The third period rally continued for Hershey with 4:33 remaining in regulation. Day sent a shot from the center point. Subban knocked down Day’s shot, but couldn’t corral the puck due to a Morelli screen. Morelli knocked the loose puck into the net to give the chocolate and white a 3-2 advantage. Morelli finished off the comeback with an empty net goal and the Bears came from behind to win 4-2.
With a chance to close out the series at home in game five, the chocolate and white came up short. The Americans took the lead 4:33 into the game when Jiri Kulich wristed a shot past Shepard for a 1-0 Rochester lead. Hershey outshot the Americans 16-8 in the middle period, but could not score. Rochester upped their advantage to 2-0 when Lukas Rousek snapped a shot past Shepard from below the right circle with 1:33 gone in the frame. The Bears answered when Protas deflected a Day shot from the center point by Subban to make it a 2-1 contest. Hershey would get no closer as Mersch scored on the power play and Rousek added an empty netter to earn the Americans a 4-1 victory.
Back in Rochester for game six, the matchup was a tight defensive contest. After a scoreless first period, the chocolate and white leaped into the lead. Malenstyn wristed a shot from the left halfboards that went off the left pad of Subban and bounced out in front. Shane Gersich pounced on the rebound and elevated a shot over Subban’s right pad to give the Bears a 1-0 advantage. Rochester had a huge chance to tie the game when the chocolate and white ran into penalty trouble in the latter stages of the second. Hershey was whistled for having too many men on the ice with 5:37 left in the frame & Sutter was sent off for tripping. The Americans had a five-on-three power play for a minute and 24 seconds. The Bears got big clears from Malenstyn and Massie, who also blocked a shot, early in the penalty kill. Massie then threw his body in front of another shot. Shepard lost his stick after denying Mersch twice from in close, but Hershey got the job done and killed off both penalties. Shepard stood tall in the third and the Bears claimed the Eastern Conference title with a 1-0 blanking of Rochester.
Coachella Valley played with out Jeremy McKenna in two games of the Western Conference finals. He has recorded 12 points in the playoffs and could return for the Calder Cup Finals. The Firebirds also just received John Hayden back from their parent club, the Seattle Kraken. He played in game six against Milwaukee. Jesper Froden returned from injury in that same game.
The Bears have been without their regular season scoring leader, Mike Sgarbossa, since the end of the Atlantic Division semifinals. He has not played since game four against Charlotte and his status for the finals is unknown. Vincent Iorio was injured in game two of the Eastern Conference Finals and missed the final four games of the series. He has been listed as day-to-day and has a chance to return sometime during the Calder Cup Finals.
The Firebirds have several faces familiar to Hershey fans. First, there is former Bear defenseman Eddie Wittchow, who has scored three goals in the playoffs. Wittchow played 89 games for the chocolate and white in three seasons with the Bears. He registered seven goals and dished out 11 assists in his time in Chocolate Town. Andrew Poturalski, Max McCormick, Kole Lind and Alexander True have all played for Charlotte and have been a thorn in Hershey’s side at different points. Former Providence Bruin Cameron Hughes and Former Lehigh Valley Phantom Carson Twarynski are also members of Coachella Valley.
Hershey did a good job dictating the style of play against Rochester in the Eastern Conference Finals. They made the series a physical battle and that played to the Bears’ advantage. The chocolate and white will look to do the same against the Firebirds.
Coachella Valley has scored four or more goals in 10 of their wins in the playoffs and have six players in the top 10 playoff scoring leaders. Hershey will need to slow the Firebirds down and make it more of a grind out series. A wide open, up-and-down style favors Coachella Valley and their high-end forwards. The Bears will need to bring the physicality and make the Firebirds battle for every inch. Pounding on their top players can have a benefit as the series goes along. Hershey’s fourth line has done an excellent job of setting the tone physically and will need to continue to do so.
Coachella Valley earns a lot of power play chances. In 19 games in the playoffs, the Firebirds have had 72 power plays. That is nearly four chances per game. They have scored 13 times with the man advantage, converting at a rate of 18.1%. That is not exceptionally high, but with talent like McCormick, Poturalski, Lind, Hughes, Shane Wright and Ryker Evans on the roster, the Bears do not want to give Coachella Valley too many opportunities on the power play.
The Hershey power play was stellar against Rochester. The Americans came into the Eastern Conference Finals having scored power play markers in six straight games and went 7 for 11 in their previous series. The Bears held Rochester to one power play goal in 15 chances. The unit will need to continue that success in the finals.
The chocolate and white need to get more shots through to goal. In both losses in the Eastern Conference Finals, Hershey had a hard time getting shots on net. They did not move the puck with pace and did not open shooting lanes as a result. The Americans blocked many shots. The Bears need to pass quicker to open lanes to goal.
The Firebirds have been good on home ice. Hershey has excelled on the road. Something has to give. Coachella Valley is 8-2 at home. The Bears are a perfect 6-0 away from the Giant Center. If the chocolate and white can continue their strong road play and open the series with a road victory, it will put pressure on the Firebirds immediately. There is a real opportunity to make a statement early in the series. It would also benefit the Bears if they could consistently play at home like they do on the road.
By Eric Lord