After the Coachella Valley Firebirds advanced to the AHL Pacific Division finals, an excited, sweat-soaked Andrew Poturalski greeted his teammates as they entered the dressing room to begin celebrating their series-clinching victory.
The Firebirds, having fallen behind in a best-of-three play-in round and again in a best-of-five series, had just won their third do-or-die game of the Calder Cup Playoffs.
An injured Poturalski had anxiously watched it all, and after that 5-0 win over the Colorado Eagles on May 5, he removed his suit coat to illustrate to a few teammates how nervous he had been that night.
“I … showed my armpits and I had sweat stains down to about my pant line,” the Williamsville native told the Times Herald.
Poturalski can be forgiven for being a jittery spectator. With each win, he moved closer to making an unlikely comeback from a severe hamstring injury – it tore right off the bone in a freaky mishap Jan. 26 – that was expected to sideline him until next season.
“I was joking and (coach) Dan Bylsma always jokes, too, ‘There’s a lot of happy people we won those games in the room, but I think you have the biggest smile on your face,’” said Poturalski, who would play the Firebirds’ final 16 playoff contests as they came within one victory of winning the Calder Cup.
As the Firebirds, the Seattle Kraken’s affiliate, prepared to face the Calgary Wranglers in the third round, Poturalski had a Zoom call with general manager Ron Francis, the team’s athletic therapist and his surgeon.
They decided the center would return for Game 3 of the best-of-five series.
On May 15, 109 days after Poturalski felt a pop when an opponent in Iowa dragged his foot when their skates tangled, he returned to game action. Four days later, he scored the overtime winner in Game 5 to clinch the series and send Coachella Valley to the Western Conference finals.
In an email to the Times Herald, Bylsma wrote Poturalski’s “‘I am going to do whatever I can attitude’ was an inspiration to our guys and to me.”
“In his rehab, all he wanted was a chance,” wrote Bylsma, who spent two seasons coaching the Buffalo Sabres. “The guys gave him the chance and Potzy delivered in dramatic fashion.”
The season, however, did not have a fairy-tale ending for Poturalski, who was trying to win his second straight AHL championship and the third of his career. The Firebirds, a first-year franchise, blew 2-0 and 3-2 series leads to the Hershey Bears before falling in overtime of Game 7 at home.
“That feeling, losing Game 7 in overtime, is horrible,” Poturalski said. “I still think about it all the time.”
Poturalski, arguably the AHL’s most decorated player, can think back and draw on the bad and good he experienced last season.
As a pro, he had never dealt with anything as difficult and painful as his injury. At first, he simply figured it would get better. When he learned at a team event he likely wouldn’t play again until 2023-24, he broke down a bit on the golf course.
“It was kind of emotional for all us,” Poturalski said.
Poturalski needed to undergo surgery right away because his hamstring had to be reattached to the bone. As the severity of the injury hit him, he felt miserable.
“I probably didn’t have the best attitude at the time, but I would say probably just like a week into it there was a switch that flipped in me,” he said. “I started doing as much research about the injury as I could, seeing other people who went through. It’s not really a common injury in hockey.”
The injury usually requires a six-month recovery period. But when Poturalski examined the Firebirds’ schedule, he said he realized “there was a real possibility” he could play again in 2022-23. So he dedicated himself to his rehab like it was a full-time job.
He spent two hours each morning doing physical therapy. He also used hyperbolic oxygen chambers, red light therapy, cryotherapy and other treatments that could speed up his rehab process.
“It all ended up paying off,” he said. “Yeah, it was nuts.”
Before Poturalski went down, he showcased his usual scoring prowess. A season after scoring a league-high 101 points and captaining the Chicago Wolves to the Calder Cup, he registered 42 points in 38 games before his injury.
He has established himself as a dynamic scorer who wins everywhere he plays. Since 2018-19, he has compiled 263 points, the AHL’s fourth-highest total.
Still, it hasn’t translated to much NHL action. He has played just four games: two in 2016-17 and two in 2021-22 when he returned to the Carolina Hurricanes, the organization that signed him as a free agent out of New Hampshire in 2016.
Getting back to the big leagues remains a driving force for Poturalski. Even at 29, he hasn’t lost hope.
“Everybody has a different story, a different path to get there and happens at different times for different people,” he said. “So that’s truly what I believe and I haven’t wavered from that my whole career.”
In Bylsma, Poturalski has earned the trust of another coach. He said Bylsma knew little about him before last season. He still had to prove his worth to him.
“He’s a coach who rewards guys who work hard and are competitive,” Poturalski said. “That was kind of the soul of our team this year. We were a competitive group. It ended up being a perfect match.”
Perhaps that match will help an opportunity materialize in Seattle, which signed Poturalski to a two-year, one-way contract last year, or somewhere else. He must clear waivers to return to the AHL. Given his consistent body of work, he could be an attractive option for a team looking to add an intriguing talent.
“I still think there’s a good opportunity in that organization,” he said of Seattle. “That’s why I ultimately signed there.”