The Coachella Valley Firebirds rose above the pressure on Saturday night, leaving UW-Milwaukee Panther Arena with a 2-1 win and a 3-2 series lead over the Milwaukee Admirals in the AHL Western Conference Final.
The loss snaps a two-game win streak for Milwaukee and pushes the Admirals to the brink of elimination. They need to win Games 6 and 7 in California to advance to the Calder Cup Final. Historically, AHL teams that win Game 5 of a best-of-seven series when tied 2-2 win that series 82.3% of the time (116 of 141 times).
“As always, we’re going to analyze it and we’ll make the adjustments we need to in order to get ready for Game 6,” Admirals head coach Karl Taylor said. “We don’t do anything easy here, all year we’ve always found a way to do things the hard way.”
According to Admirals president Jon Greenberg, Saturday’s game was Milwaukee’s largest playoff crowd since 2011.
It was the first time in 13 playoff games that Milwaukee was held to fewer than two goals, and the first time the Firebirds won a game by scoring less than three goals this postseason.
Unlike Game 4, Milwaukee’s kryptonite was its special teams. The team was just 1-for-5 on the power play which included a double minor on defenseman Ryker Evans for high sticking late in the first period.
An early power play chance came up just 6:21 in, and while the Admirals had five shots on the man advantage, they couldn’t get anything by Firebirds goaltender Joey Daccord. Milwaukee answered on its next power play, however, when forward Kiefer Sherwood scored his third goal of the playoffs (second on the man advantage) to give the Admirals a 1-0 lead.
Coachella Valley’s five-shot output in the first period was its second-worst all postseason.
WOODY WITH THE ONE TIMER 🚨 pic.twitter.com/1qYDwOOBJI
— x – Milwaukee Admirals (@mkeadmirals) June 3, 2023
The Firebirds responded in the second period, taking a 2-1 lead on goals from defenseman Brogan Rafferty and forward Max McCormick as they outshot the Admirals 14-6. Rafferty’s goal came just 1:22 in on the second shot of the period. McCormick’s goal at 16:43 was his AHL-leading 12th goal of playoffs.
Ads defenseman Spencer Stastney then rang one off the iron for Milwaukee just mere inches shy of the Admirals answering right back. Milwaukee forwards Philip Tomasino and Jimmy Huntington had a 2-on-1 opportunity with seven minutes to play in the second, however, Huntington missed wide of the net as Tomasino dished him a pass.
“In the second (period), they really dug in and pushed,” Taylor said. “Then they three-quartered us for probably 12 minutes that period and really took the game over. I thought (Devin) Cooley played great. You hold that (team) to two goals regardless of how the game goes in the ebbs and flows, you should win that game. We had some good looks on the power play in the first period and we didn’t get a second one in there.”
Cooley was pulled for the extra attacker with 1:17 left in the third period but it was for naught. In three straight starts, Cooley has a 1.68 goals-against average and .942 save percentage. Games 3-5 are the first time this postseason the Firebirds, who have averaged 3.5 goals per game in the playoffs, have been held to two or fewer goals in three straight games.
Milwaukee will head back to Palm Desert, California for Game 6 on Monday at 9 p.m. CT and an if-necessary Game 7 on Wednesday at 9 p.m. CT.
“We just have to go in and win the first game,” Taylor said. “Focus on what we can do. We’ll prep for the building and prep for what they’re going to do and make sure we’re ready to play. We felt we left some opportunities there the last time we played. We lost both games, but we thought there were opportunities to win both. We’re not afraid of that building so we’re excited to go back there. We welcome the challenge, we’re excited to go there and play Game 6.”
The Western Conference Final winner will face the Hershey Bears in the Calder Cup Final.
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(Photo via the Milwaukee Admirals)