Pickard’s return giving Condors a lift

Photo: Mark Nessia

📝 by Patrick Williams

Calvin Pickard missed the fight.

But his return from an early-season injury has the Bakersfield Condors rolling as they move through the stretch drive.

Pickard took another turn in net Tuesday night — his 13th start in Bakersfield’s last 16 games — and handled 21 shots in a 3-1 win over San Diego.

“It’s just nice to be back battling with the teammates,” Pickard said.

With Tuesday’s win, the Condors are 11-4-0-1 in those 16 games and have pushed past Tucson for sixth place in the Pacific Division. It also gave the Condors (23-23-2-2, 50 points) a bit of extra breathing room ahead of the San Jose Barracuda, who are four points behind both them and the Roadrunners for the division’s seventh and final playoff spot.

Pickard first returned to the Bakersfield net Jan. 4 from an injury sustained in a Nov. 15 game against Colorado. One of the first significant injuries of Pickard’s 12-year pro career, he punctuated his return that night with 46 saves in a 3-2 win against Ontario. Following a brief recall to the Edmonton Oilers, Pickard has settled back with the Condors, who had lost 14 of 18 with their veteran goalie sidelined.

In all, Pickard is 13-7-2 this season with a 2.73 goals-against average and a .916 save percentage.

Pickard’s return has allowed Condors head coach Colin Chaulk to ease the workload of third-year netminder Olivier Rodrigue, a 2018 second-round pick by the Oilers. It also has provided a chance for rookie Ryan Fanti, a standout at Minnesota-Duluth, to go back to the organization’s ECHL affiliate in Fort Wayne to take on extra work there.

The Pickard-Rodrigue set-up is what the Oilers envisioned when they went out on the first day of free agency last July and immediately signed Pickard, giving him a two-year deal and providing themselves with one of the best organizational insurance options out there. Pickard had spent the past three seasons in the Detroit organization, including 43 games last season in Grand Rapids, where he went 21-16-5 with a 2.58 GAA and .918 save percentage.

They also got someone who won a Calder Cup in 2018 with the Toronto Marlies. That season Pickard and partner Garret Sparks shared the Harry “Hap” Holmes Memorial Award, which is given to the goaltenders on the team with the fewest goals allowed per game at season’s end.

Pickard saw the Oilers as a good opportunity at this stage in his career.

“When they talked to me about signing me, they made me feel very comfortable about coming in and having a good opportunity to push as the number-three in the organization,” he said.

And with a wife and daughter and another child on the way in March, Bakersfield offered a good off-ice arrangement for Pickard’s family. The Condors also enjoy a manageable travel schedule, where even in the wide expanse of the Western Conference, the team’s longest road trip this season is only five games.

“That is the number-one priority: having a good set-up for the family,” Pickard stated.

On the night of his injury, Pickard had appeared to be favoring something moments before he had to go post-to-post on a back-door attempt by the Eagles early in the second period. His night was through, and he would go more than seven weeks before his next game.

“Right when it happened I knew something was not right,” said Pickard of the injury.

But he was walking shortly after the injury and initially had hopes that his time off the ice would be minimal. He has long been remarkably durable, playing 140 games in his first three full AHL seasons as a Colorado Avalanche prospect and then taking on 50 games with the NHL club in 2016-17. He played at least 62 games in a season three times in junior with Seattle (WHL). Sitting out was not something he knew well.

“I figured I was only going to [need] a week or two, but it was a long process,” Pickard said last month.

A long rehabilitation process with head athletic trainer Josh Bennett, strength and conditioning coach Travis Lay, assistant athletic trainer Corey Dirks, and the club’s support staff was ahead instead for Pickard, who admitted he didn’t know what to expect.

“You never know if it’s really better at certain points. You don’t know if it’s going to be even longer than what it was. It was a tough recovery.”

That recovery also meant lots of time before and after practice working with Condors goaltending coach Sylvain Rodrigue, who is also Olivier’s father. The younger Rodrigue had a chance to gain experience as a number-one while Pickard was out. Now with the veteran back, the Condors are looking increasingly dangerous in the Pacific Division.

Pickard likes what might be ahead for the Condors.

“We’ve got a pretty good one-two punch here in the second half.”