Reaching the playoffs for the first time in the team’s AHL history was the top goal for the Bakersfield Condors and first-year head coach Jay Woodcroft heading into the 2018-19 season.
There were internal discussions about it, then Oilers Entertainment Group CEO Bob Nicholson cemented those expectations in May 2018 as he introduced Woodcroft as the Condors’ new head coach.
“Anytime the CEO and backbone of an organization comes out and lays expectations out like that, I think people within the organization should take notice and so I took notice,” Woodcroft said. “I think I joked about it in the press conference where I said, ‘Hey, no pressure, Bob.’”
Woodcroft and company didn’t crack under that pressure. Instead, made history.
The Condors didn’t just “earn an invitation to the dance,” as Woodcroft put it. They earned the top seed in the Pacific Division and the Western Conference for the first time in their four-year AHL history, surpassing the initial vision of Woodcroft and Nicholson.
No. 1 Bakersfield (42-21-3-2) will face the Pacific Division’s fourth-seeded Colorado Eagles (36-27-4-1) in the first round of the playoffs. The best-of-five series will start with two games at Colorado on Friday and Saturday before heading to Bakersfield. The games at Rabobank Arena will be Tuesday and, if needed, Saturday (April 27) and Sunday (April 28).
The Condors will have home ice advantage through the first three rounds of the playoffs, if they advance.
“We accomplished that one (goal of making the playoffs), so now we’re setting some new ones,” Bakersfield rookie goalie Shane Starrett said. “We want to win the Calder (Cup) and to do that, you got to take it one game at a time, one round at a time.”
By Woodcroft’s evaluation, Bakersfield has been playing “at a very good clip” since the middle of January. Of course that includes the team’s 17-game win streak that matched the second-longest streak in AHL history. Each month of action, Bakersfield has gotten better, Woodcroft said.
The Condors finished the regular season with the most goals scored per game (3.6) and fewest total goals allowed (182). Forward Joe Gambardella, who broke the team AHL single-season record with 29 goals, led the league with a 29.9 percent shooting percentage.
The brief break the team got at the end of December was the resting point of the year, Gambardella said. And as center Brad Malone likes to say, according to Gambardella, rest is a weapon. The Condors took some losses before starting the streak at Colorado on Jan. 12.
“We like where we’re at now,” Condors center Cooper Marody said, “and we have a lot more to prove.”
Condors defenseman Ethan Bear and forward Kailer Yamamoto are “day-to-day” with injuries, Woodcroft said Wednesday, and he is “hoping” they will be available to play.
The team will get another able body with Oilers 2018 first round draft pick Evan Bouchard joining the Condors following the conclusion of his season in juniors. What day Bouchard will be added to the Condors has yet to be determined, Woodcroft said, and the coach will not determine the defenseman’s minutes or role until he is physically with the team.
Woodcroft stressed that Bouchard was with the organization during training camp and is familiar with the system and a lot of the players in Bakersfield.
Though the regular season was better than Woodcroft expected, it wasn’t entirely a surprise. Now he’s hoping the base the team built throughout the first 68 games of the year will pay off in the postseason.
“I’d be lying if I said that thought that we were going to win the Pacific Division during the regular season,” Woodcroft said of his thoughts while preparing for his introductory press conference in May 2018. “But what I did see is what we are seeing, which is a team whose care for each other runs marrow deep. They play within a structure, they play towards an identity and when they do that, I think it gives us a chance to win every game that we’re in.”