Condors in thick of Pacific race heading into busy stretch

Photo: Mark Nessia

Patrick Williams, Features Writer

The Bakersfield Condors have hit the AHL season’s stretch drive.

Ahead of them is a packed schedule that includes 16 games in March, 27 games total over the last 58 days of their regular season.

Whether or not they can put the pedal down remains to be seen, but pulling out a hard-fought 4-3 overtime win against San Diego last night is another good step for head coach Colin Chaulk’s club.

Having lost three games in row before facing the Gulls, the Condors found themselves trailing 2-0 in the opening 3:35 of the contest. They were also without several regulars, including captain Brad Malone, defensemen Philip Broberg and Markus Niemelainen, plus forwards Jayden Grubbe, James Hamblin and Matvey Petrov. But they do own an excellent power play that is sixth in the AHL at 20.8 percent, and that can pull them through on nights like that.

Lane Pederson scored twice on the power play in the first period while Raphael Lavoie tacked on another man-advantage tally. And Olivier Rodrigue settled in after those opening two San Diego goals, providing 28 stops until Carter Savoie could end the game in overtime for the Condors.

The victory also put a bit of extra space between Bakersfield and the resurgent Gulls. The Condors are part of a four-team pack which sees three points separate fifth from eighth place in the Pacific Division, where the top seven clubs will qualify for the Calder Cup Playoffs. If they can find success down the stretch, however, they will be very well positioned for another trip to the Calder Cup Playoffs. They have not missed the postseason since 2018.

At various points this season, Bakersfield yielded as many as 10 games in hand to Henderson. The road ahead next takes them to Tucson for a pair of games this weekend against one of the top clubs in the AHL, followed by a home date with Roadrunners next Wednesday.

The busy schedule potentially puts Bakersfield in a much more advantageous spot than last season, when it took a 19-9-0-1 run coming out the AHL All-Star break to help the Condors finally lock up a fifth-place spot. They can avoid a late scramble like that this year.

“What we have done is set ourselves up to be in a position to use these games in hand as an advantage,” Chaulk said. “I think last year we had our backs against the wall.”

To be sure, it already has been an eventful season for the Condors, and that starts with the NHL parent club. An NHL club’s struggles can quickly impact the AHL affiliate, and Bakersfield has been no exception. For one, the Edmonton Oilers endured a 3-9-1 start that resulted in head coach Jay Woodcroft being replaced by former Hartford Wolf Pack head coach Kris Knoblauch back on Nov. 12.

Just before that coaching change, the Condors also had Oilers netminder Jack Campbell arrive in November after clearing waivers. Campbell signed a five-year, $25 million contract as a free agent going into the 2022-23 season but he had his own difficult start this past fall. At 32, Campbell found himself back in the AHL and trying to save his career.

By mid-December the Condors found themselves at 8-10-0-1 and somewhat adrift in the always-grueling Pacific Division. But a 10-1-1-1 charge quickly offset that slow start; by the time the Condors reached the midpoint of their season, they were sitting at 19-13-2-2 on Jan. 31.

“It’s interesting,” Chaulk said in thinking back to Campbell’s early days with the Condors. “Like anything, when you go into a new department or you move jobs but you’re doing the same thing in a different area, it takes a little bit of time for you to get your rhythm. It takes time for you to get your feel, to work with new people. There’s no amount of games or amount of days to put on it. It’s more of a feeling.

“I think Jack, for example, you need to go through that time for him to feel everybody out and for us to feel him out. [Condors goaltending coach Sylvain Rodrigue] has done a fantastic job from a technical perspective. You try to learn about the players. Just normal conversation. Not about hockey. Making them feel that you’re on their side. You’re there to help them.”

Another task for Chaulk and the Condors involved Broberg, a 22-year-old whom the Oilers selected eighth overall in the 2019 NHL Draft. He spent 46 games with the Oilers last season only to find himself back in the AHL again.

“You see him come up, come down, have successes, have failures,” Chaulk said of the top prospect. “I think he is drawing on experience. At this time in the American League, he’s playing close to 30 minutes. He’s able to calm a bad D-zone coverage shift down. The other team makes a push, and he’s able to skate it out of trouble or make a really good pass to bring pressure off a heavy forecheck.

“Those are things that he could do periodically before. He’s doing them more consistently now. There’s still areas of his game that we’d like to see grow, but he’s impacting the game all over the ice in different situations on a nightly basis, and that’s hard to do.”

The Oilers ended up turning around their season after Knoblauch arrived. A season that was in danger of falling apart before it was a third over now has plenty of optimism. Buoyed in part by a 16-game winning streak, the Oilers are now firmly in control of their playoff positioning. At the AHL level, the Condors are trying to secure that same grip on a playoff spot.

“I’m super happy for anybody from the American League to get an opportunity in the National League,” Chaulk said. “For Kris to go in and do the job he’s done, it’s exceptional, and it shows that there’s good coaches in the American League. We’re here in Bakersfield to help the Oilers.

“That’s our job.”