The 2018-19 season had already been one filled with historic achievements and plenty of Bakersfield American Hockey League firsts.
The Condors added one more item to that ever-increasing list on Saturday: first time finishing at the top of the Pacific Division (in the AHL), beating the Ontario Reign, 6-3, at Rabobank Arena on Saturday. The home regular season finale drew 7,377 fans.
Technically, the Condors (41-21-3-2) clinched the division when San Jose fell to Colorado with about three minutes left in the second period in Bakersfield. The Condors were up 4-0 at the time and had done plenty of work to wrap up the regular season title themselves.
“We wanted to play tonight’s game the right way and take care of our business, regardless of what happened on the road with those other teams,” Condors head coach Jay Woodcroft said. “... It’s a good feeling"
Bakersfield will head to Stockton for a 5 p.m. game on Sunday that will wrap up the regular season. It will start the playoffs at fourth-seeded Colorado on Friday and Saturday next week before returning home in the best-of-five series.
The Condors entered Saturday’s game as the most dangerous second period team in the AHL, having scored 104 goals in the second frame. No other team had scored more than 86. They kept true to that reputation.
Bakersfield netted three goals in the second period, including two from forward Joe Gambardella. He scored his 28th and 29th goals of the season, breaking the Condors’ AHL single-season goals record.
His first came about a minute and a half into the period. After an initial save, the puck got lost between several bodies in front of the net for a few seconds. Waiting to the right of the pile, Gambardella picked the puck out and dropped to a knee to bury the shot into a large gap behind Reign goalie Cal Peterson.
Gambardella pocketed another scrappy goal on the power play at the 14:01 mark. Defenseman Caleb Jones’ shot got blocked. Gambardella sent one on goal that hit off Peterson and bounced into the crease. Gambardella charged at the net and finished off the job to give Bakersfield a 4-0 lead.
The Reign (25-33-6-4), playing like the last place team in the division, did not score until less than a minute remained in the second period. Ontario’s Craig Wyszomirski fluttered a shot from the point that sailed over Condors goalie Shane Starrett’s right shoulder. It may have hit a Bakersfield player on its way to the goal.
When the Condors took the ice to start the third period, they heard the public address announcer say that they had won the division.
“It was a pretty surreal feeling to see the atmosphere erupt like that,” Gambardella said.
Patrick Russell put the Condors up 1-0 at 12:54 in the first period. Gambardella did the work to win the race to a dumped in puck and sent a pass to the opposite circle. Russell received the pass and snapped a wrister off the right post and in for his 18th goal of the season.
Bakersfield forward Tyler Benson scored after a toe drag through the right circle for the team’s second goal of the second period. It came about a minute before Gambardella’s second score.
Starrett finished with 19 saves.
Perhaps the most visually pleasing score of the night was a tic-tac-toe play on a 3-on-1. Russell passed to Brad Malone, who held the puck briefly as he closed in on the crease from the right side. Malone gave the pass back to Russell, who was trailing a bit on the other side and stretched the lead to 5-2 in the third.
Immediately after the game, Woodcroft had yet to decide how securing the division would affect what players would make the trip to Stockton and who would play.