After 65 games, it all comes down to tonight’s game in San Diego for the Bakersfield Condors.
The Condors head into the final three games of the season three points behind Stockton for the final playoff spot in the AHL Pacific Division. Stockton hosts Ontario tonight.
There are many scenarios left, but the most pertinent are these two: (1) A Condors win and a Stockton loss in regulation puts the Condors back in control of their own destiny. (2) A Condors loss and a Stockton win eliminates the Condors, who travel to Stockton on Friday.
“Every game from January on has been pivotal,” Condors coach Gerry Fleming said on Tuesday after the Condors practiced in San Diego. "We’ve had some good runs, had some lows. But the good news is the guys have fought all year long, and we’re still in the hunt.”
The Condors ended the 2016 portion of the season a game below .500 and last in the Pacific Division. They battled back and were four points up on Stockton on March 27. Since then, the Condors have gone 2-4 and the Heat 5-0-1. The Condors are 4-4 over their last eight while the Heat is 7-0-1.
It appears the tide turned for both team in Texas. The Heat started their current eight-game run with a sweep through Texas, going 5-0 (including a shootout win). The Condors followed the Heat into Texas but came out of the fray 1-2.
Turnovers, in their own zone and the neutral zone, plagued the Condors in games against Texas and San Antonio to start a five-game road trip and were key factors in both losses.
“When we’re playing well, one of the biggest things you’ll notice is our transition from defense to offensive, moving the puck quickly out of our zone,” Fleming said. “Conversely, when we’re turning pucks over, like most teams, if you don’t manage the puck it hurts you.”
That was certainly the cast last Wednesday when the Stars opened up a 3-0 lead (on a 3-on-1 and two defensive-zone turnovers), which caused Fleming to pull Nick Ellis after 10 minutes and 11 shots.
Penalties and turnovers proved too much to overcome for the Condors in a 4-3 loss to San Antonio on Friday, and the Condors looked to be on their way to another loss as they fell behind 2-0 on Sunday before cleaning up their game and scoring five unanswered goals. Ellis stopped 28 shots for the win in that game.
And while Fleming notes that every game has been important, tonight’s tops the chart.
“We’ve set ourselves up to be in this position, so we’ve got to go out and take care of business,” he said.
Injuries, new faces for Condors
The Condors will be trying to “take care of business” without two key players — defenseman Jordan Oesterle and captain Ryan Hamilton, each of whom left a game against San Antonio on a stretcher.
Oesterle left last Wednesday's game after being hit from behind by Jim O’Brien, spent the night in a San Antonio hospital for observation and will be out for an extended period time of time with an upper body injury. The AHL suspended O’Brien four games for what Fleming called “a horrible hit.”
On Friday, it was Hamilton being wheeled off on a stretcher after a clean open-ice hit left him concussed. “He’s still a little foggy and in concussion protocol,” Fleming said. Hamilton had just returned to the Condors after missing six weeks due to a broken thumb.
Three new players — forward Joe Gamberdella and defensemen Ziyat Paigin and Ryan Mantha, all signed by the Oilers, played their first pro games for the Condors on the Texas trip.
“We had those guys in the lineup to see what they can do,” Fleming said. “It’s all part of development.”
The Condors also signed two more players to Amateur Try Out Agreements on Tuesday — left wings Evan Campbell (out of UMass-Lowell) and Evan Polei, who just finished Western Hockey League play with the Red Deer (Alberta) Rebels.