Not long after NHL legend Wayne Gretzky had dropped the ceremonial puck Sunday inside Acrisure Arena, the Coachella Valley Firebirds found themselves shell-shocked and playing from behind.
It was the first time since Dec. 28 — a span of 10 games — that the Firebirds did not score first. Playing from behind early in their inaugural season in the American Hockey League is not a common experience for Coachella Valley.
But despite falling into a quick deficit, as they have often done in their inaugural season in the American Hockey League, the Firebirds found a way to emerge victorious in a 4-2 win over the San Diego Gulls in front of a crowd of 9,473.
Although Coachella Valley was held without a goal for the majority of two periods, they still have not been shut out in a game this season.
With the final day of The American Express PGA Tour event playing out a few miles away, and the NFL divisional playoffs on television, fans packed the arena for yet another dramatic finish inside the $500 million facility. Last week, three games ended in overtime, with two going to a shootout.
On Sunday, it appeared to be headed that direction again after the Firebirds finally got on the scoreboard to tie the game at a goal apiece. With 12 minutes into the second period, Firebirds left winger Tye Kartye stole a pass about 15 feet in front of the San Diego goal and immediately fired it into the back of the net to send the crowd to its feet.
San Diego answered back 10 minutes later to take a 2-1 lead into the final period. Three minutes into the final period, right winger Kole Lind evened the score for the Firebirds.
Seconds after that, right winger Jesper Frödén fired what would be the eventual game-winning goal into the back of the net.
Sunday’s game was supposed to be a lopsided win, with Coachella Valley leading from start to finish. The Firebirds are in first place in the Western Conference, the Gulls are last. Coachella Valley entered the game with the third-most goals in the conference (138) and San Diego was tied for the fewest (101). The Gulls also allowed the most goals in the conference (151).
Yet like seven of the first 10 games inside Acrisure Arena, which opened Dec. 18, Sunday’s game was tight from start to finish.
Coachella Valley entered the game with a nearly unbeatable record of 16-1 when they scored first. But the Firebirds are also proving that they can also win when they play from behind and find themselves in tight games. They fell behind in the second period on Saturday and found their way to an overtime win capped by a game-winning goal by forward Max McCormick.
The Firebirds did not play their best hockey the last time they played on a Sunday afternoon following a Saturday evening game. On Jan. 8, the Ontario Reign snapped a seven-game Coachella Valley win streak. The Firebirds have not lost since, and Sunday’s win extended the current winning streak to five games.
1-0, Gulls: Pavol Regenda put the Gulls up early with a goal just 1:26 into the first period. The crowd had barely settled in, with many still making their way to their seats. Defenseman Nikolas Brouillard recorded the assist.
1-1: Kartye’s unassisted goal in the second period was his seventh of the season.
2-1, Gulls: Glenn Gawdin scored his 10th goal of the season to give the Gulls their second lead of the game.
2-2: Lind’s goal, which came on assists from Kartye and Jimmy Schuldt, was his 16th of the season.
3-2, Firebirds: Frödén’s goal, on assists from Max McCormick and Andrew Poturlaski, gave the Firebirds their first lead of the game.
4-2: Cameron Hughes scored the Firebirds’ fourth goal, on assists from Schuldt and Ville Petman, with fewer than 11 minutes remaining in the game. Hughes, who scored the first goal inside Acrisure Arena on Dec. 18, has five goals this season.
Gretzky in the house: The NHL’s all-time leading scorer was on hand to take part in the action and is speaking at the Agua Caliente Resort Spa Casino in Rancho Mirage on Monday. Fans were able to take photos with Gretzky before the game.
Half way there: Sunday’s game marked the midway point of the season for the Firebirds. They’ll play 36 more games this season, with the 2022-23 regular season ending for Coachella Valley on April 15.
Frödén on fire: The 28-year-old from Sweden has been on a tear since the AHL All-Star Classic’s rosters were announced and his name was not on it. In the four games since, Frödén has scored seven points — including five goals and two assists.
Frödén’s goal on Sunday gave him 22 on the season, which leads the Firebirds and is second among all players in the AHL.
Hayden reassigned: Firebirds forward John Hayden, who had been called up this last week to play with Coachella Valley’s NHL affiliate, the Seattle Kraken, was reassigned to the Firebirds on Sunday. He was not in uniform and therefore did not play against the Gulls.
Hayden has scored 13 goals and recorded 12 assists in 34 games this season. He played one game with the Kraken after being called up.
Thursday: The Firebirds will next travel to Des Moines, Iowa, to face the Iowa Wild (19-14-2-3) at Wells Fargo Arena. It’ll be one of the few trips outside of the western United States or Canada for Coachella Valley.
The Wild, the AHL affiliate of the NHL’s Minnesota Wild, have won six of eight games in January. They had a six-game winning streak snapped in a 4-3 shootout loss to the Milwaukee Admirals on Saturday.