Feature Story

L’Heureux, Ads Ready for Firebirds

By Jason Karnosky

If ever a player was built for the playoffs, it would be Admirals forward Zach L’Heureux.

A menace at both ends of the ice, the rookie forward is having a coming out party in the Calder Cup playoffs. L’Heureux leads all American Hockey League players with 13 postseason points, helping Milwaukee knock off Grand Rapids in five games in the Central Division finals. With the win Milwaukee returned to the Western Conference finals for the second straight season.

“Zach is playing world class hockey in the playoffs,” Admirals coach Karl Taylor said. “He’s done a great job for us.”

On Sunday in Game 5 of the Central Division finals against Grand Rapids, L’Heureux scored a shorthanded goal early on. His first period tally ended up being the decisive goal in Milwaukee’s 2-0 series clinching victory.

“Z(ach) is a very emotional, high energy, and intense player, and often he kind of drags us into the fight,” Admirals captain Kevin Gravel said. “In Game 5 he scored another big goal for us, and that is something he’s done the whole postseason. He has been incredible for us, and fun to watch.”

L’Heureux has been an absolute force scoring goals. Most of the Montreal, Quebec native’s eight postseason tallies have been of the important variety, keying Milwaukee’s six postseason victories.

“I’m trying to score in every game, and trying to be a competitor,” said L’Heureux, who also racked up a game winner and an assist in Milwaukee’s 5-3, Game 2 victory over Grand Rapids. “Sometimes I get a little carried away, but I’m always trying to help our team win.”

In the prior round, Milwaukee dug itself into a 2-0 hole after losing the first two road games against Texas. However, L’Heureux’s offense turned the series, as the 6’0” forward rattled off eight points in the next three home contests as the Admirals completed the reverse sweep. In the winner-take-all Game 5 against the Stars, L’Heureux scored a pair of goals in the first minute, igniting Milwaukee’s 5-3 series clinching victory.

L’Heureux’s game is certainly a lot more than just scoring goals. Along with leading the AHL playoffs in both goals and points, the recently turned 21-year-old paces the Calder Cup playoffs with 26 penalty minutes. This coming after a regular season where L’Heureux racked up 197 minutes in penalties, placing the agitating Admiral behind only Lehigh Valley’s Garrett Wilson (216) for the most in the AHL.

“It’s not just the goals that (Zach’s) scored in the playoffs, but it is the stuff he does away from the puck, in our defensive zone, and his ability to get under another guy’s skin that has just been great for us.” Gravel said.

Veteran goaltender Troy Grosenick has been another Admirals postseason hero. The local Brookfield native made 30 saves to post a shutout in the deciding game against Grand Rapids.

“Winner-take-all games, that is what you are thinking about when you are a kid and are playing street hockey,” said Grosenick, who sports a record of 4-1-0 in the playoffs, with a 2.00 goals against average and .924 save percentage. “For me I was pretending I was doing that for the Admirals and winning those games. Winning Game 5 against Grand Rapids was a dream come true … but we’re not satisfied with just winning two series.”

With starting goaltender Yaroslav Askarov missing Game 5 against Grand Rapids, Grosenick will likely start Game 1 of Milwaukee’s rematch against Coachella Valley in the Western Conference finals. Last spring the Firebirds eliminated the Admirals in 6 games. This time around, each team’s rosters are a little different. Most notably, Milwaukee will have L’Heureux front and center against the Firebirds.

“Our guys don’t want this run to end,” Taylor said. “They want to keep being around each other, to keep competing, and to win a championship. We need eight more wins to do that.”

Coachella Valley posted a record of 46-15-6-5 during the regular season, winning the Pacific Division regular season title. In the postseason, the Firebirds dropped Game 1 against Calgary, but then won six straight contests, eliminating the Wranglers, and then sweeping the Ontario Reign on their road to the Western Conference finals.

“Coachella Valley had a great year, pretty much from start to finish, and they’ve been on a great run so far in the playoffs,” Gravel said. “They have been waiting for us in Palm Springs, and their rink has an incredible environment. Playing in another Western Conference finals out there, there isn’t much more you can ask for as a player.”

Having only played in seven AHL playoff games so far, Coachella Valley will be well rested going into the Western Conference finals. The Firebirds don’t have a single player in the top 22 in AHL postseason scoring, but Coachella Valley features a very balanced attack led by Max McCormick and Devin Shore (team-leading four playoff goals each). Rookie Shane Wright will be another player to watch for the Firebirds.

Last season Joey Daccord backstopped Coachella Valley’s run to the Calder Cup finals. This spring the Firebirds are relying on Chris Driedger in goal, who is 6-1-0 in the postseason, with a 2.39 goals against average and a .921 save percentage.

“Coachella Valley has a very good team, and they will be a lot to handle,” Taylor said. “This year’s squad is very similar to last year’s in that they have a great goaltender, they have elite talent, and they have a lot of their core leadership back.”

For the second straight spring Coachella Valley will have the home ice advantage against Milwaukee. In last year’s Western Conference finals, the Firebirds won the first two games on their home rink. The Admirals tied the series with a pair of victories back at Panther Arena, before dropping two tight games to close the series.

Coachella Valley then went on to lose in the Calder Cup finals in a seven-game classic against Hershey. The Bears are also back in the Eastern Conference finals this spring, where they are facing the Cleveland Monsters. The winner of that series will take on the winner of Milwaukee and Coachella Valley with the 2024 Calder Cup on the line.

“We are down to four teams, so it is the best of the best in the AHL facing off for the Calder Cup,” Taylor said. “Coachella Valley is going to be hungry since they went to the finals last year and lost in overtime in Game 7. They are a very determined group trying to change their fate, just like we will be trying to do against them after what happened last year.”

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