Make no mistake about it, there was plenty to play for in the final two regulation season games for the Bakersfield Condors on Friday and Saturday at Mechanics Bank Arena.
No matter how the Condors fared, they were going to play a best-of-three American Hockey League first round playoff series on the road. They just didn’t know where.
But their opponent, the Coachella Valley Firebirds, the second best team in the league, entered the weekend with a chance to finish first in the Pacific Division and earn a coveted first round bye.
What ensued were two physical, intense playoff-style games with the Condors prevailing in both, 3-0 on Friday night and 4-2 on Saturday as they finished regular season play with 10 straight wins on home ice. Both wins were sealed by empty-net goals from rookie Noah Philp.
“That feels great,” Philp, who also scored the first goal on Saturday night and ended the season with 19, said of the two wins. “They’re a great team, they're tough to beat. We’ve had struggles with them this year but I think those were some of our best games all year and it’s good we’re playing that way right now.
“It was awesome for our confidence and to show we can play with anybody and give us some momentum going into the playoffs.”
Calgary, the best team in the AHL, emerged as the Pacific Division champs and secured the bye. The Firebirds will face seventh-seeded Tucson.
The fifth-seeded Condors came into the weekend not knowing if they would be playing in Colorado or Abbotsford, B.C. Turns out Bakersfield ended up winning the long-haul award for the first round and had to make arrangements after Saturday night’s finale to get around 40 people to Abbotsford on short notice. Not an easy task.
But getting to the playoffs was no easy task either as on Jan. 25 the Condors were dead last in the Pacific Division and seven games below .500.
“I think the first half (of the season) was a bit of a struggle for a lot of people,” Philp said. “I think as a unit we all put our heads together and decided to work on our game a little bit. I think we showed we can turn it around and be a pretty good team in this league."
The Condors actually started the season hot and were tied for first in the Pacific Division at 7-3-1-0 after a fifth straight win on Nov. 12.
But the seeds of change had already been planted.
Forwards Mattias Janmark and Klim Kostin were recalled to the Edmonton Oilers on Nov. 9, never to return.
No. 1 goaltender Calvin Pickard was injured in a Nov. 15 game and missed two months. Captain Brad Malone was recalled to Edmonton on Nov. 18. Defenseman Philip Broberg followed Malone to Edmonton a few days later as did forwards James Hamblin and Tyler Benson.
But the struggles through the first 38 games likely centered around defensemen, or lack of them. Broberg started the season injured and played just seven games before his recall, from which he never returned. Markus Niemelainen played in just 13 of the first 38 games due to recalls to Edmonton. Fellow defensemen Vinny Desharnais (now firmly entrenched in Edmonton) and Yanni Kaldis combined to miss 39 of the first 38 games due to injury.
After that early five-game winning streak the Condors lost nine of their next 10 and by Christmas the team was in a downward spiral with no signs of being able to pull out.
“As a group, the coaching staff and the players, we got together and said we would not allow a negative environment,” Condors head coach Colin Chaulk said of the turnaround. “We talked about sticking together, staying with the plan. Understanding we had a handful of games in hand and that we knew we were a playoff team. We didn’t know where we would be but we all believed we were a playoff team.
“We were in ninth place at that time. Real credit to the players and everybody just sticking together and slowly gaining momentum, slowly gaining belief. Next then you know we’re a .500 hockey team and we started climbing from there.”
Over the final 34 games the Condors went 23-10-11 for a .691 winning percentage - third best in the AHL, only behind Pacific Division teams Calgary and Coachella Valley.
“I’m not sure anyone really wants to play us right now,” Caulk said. “We’re a team with a high level of belief. We’ve been through a ton of adversity. There’s a lot of will in that room.”
The series against Abbotsford starts Wednesday with Game 1. Game 2 is Friday and Game 3, if necessary, is Sunday. All games start at 7 p.m.