For multiple reasons, a deep postseason run seemed like an unlikely proposition for the Bakersfield Condors in 2021.
Once a COVID-shortened season got underway in February, the Condors didn't exactly come out on fire, opening the season with five consecutive losses.
So even though the American Hockey League canceled the Calder Cup Playoffs last month, the fact that the Condors get a chance to be one of the final two teams standing in any postseason format is an accomplishment not lost on anyone in the organization.
After that rough start, the Condors went 24-9 the rest of the regular season and rallied to win a pair of overtime elimination games against San Diego in the Pacific Division Playoffs, setting up a best-of-three championship series with Henderson with the John D. Chick Trophy up for grabs.
"I think you saw what our team was all about," Condors coach Jay Woodcroft said after his team's 2-1 series clinching win against San Diego Monday. "I can't say enough about the leadership in that locker room. They say the right things, they do the right things and they instill a never-say-die attitude."
That never-say-die attitude was on display for many of the Condors' regular season matchups with their upcoming opponent.
It its last eight games against Henderson, Bakersfield has won seven times, even overcoming a 3-0 deficit en route to a 4-3 shootout win on the road on the final day of the regular season.
And even though they know how to beat the Silver Knights, Condors players aren't putting much stock in the regular season, saying the focus is on maintaining an attack-heavy mindset that helped them gut through a tough semifinal series.
"It's going to be a tough series," said Brad Malone, who sent the Condors to the finals with an overtime goal in game three against the Gulls. "I think we both have a pretty good understanding of each other. It's probably the same game plan we had against (San Diego). We've got to be patient in our structure and get pucks to the net and find a way to crack them."
After pushing though a challenging season, Woodcroft is ready for the chance to bring home some playoff hardware.
"There was a lot of hard work put into making this a season," he said. "It takes a huge commitment from the organization to ice a team during a pandemic. Financially the Edmonton Oilers stepped up and made sure that we were fielding a team in the American Hockey League and developing our young players, not outsourcing player development.
"We grinded our way through an 0-5 start … found our footing and all of the sudden we found ourselves in a playoff series against a high-quality opponent.”
The series will begin Wednesday at 7 p.m. Game two will take place at 7 p.m. on either Thursday or Friday, depending on the result of Wednesday's NHL Stanley Cup playoff game between the Vegas Golden Knights and the Minnesota Wild. A Vegas win would place game two on Friday, while a Minnesota win would put the game on Thursday.
Game three, if necessary, will be on Saturday at a time to be determined. All three games will be played at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas.