Despite returning a bevy of players from last year’s Pacific Division championship team, Condors coach Jay Woodcroft stressed prior to the season that this was a different team.
Just over a third of the way through the American Hockey League season there is no doubt he was right.
After 25 games last season the Condors were riding a four-game win streak, were five games above .500 and as Woodcroft often liked to say, learning how to win.
At this time last year the Condors had three forwards among the top 20 rookie scorers in the AHL; were No. 1 in shots for (34.84 per games); No. 8 in shots against (28.16); had five players with 18 or more points; and had shaken off early-season goaltending woes (think Al Montoya).
Fast forward to this season and the Condors are a game below .500 at 10-11-3-1, have just one player, defenseman Evan Bouchard, in the top 20 in rookie scoring, and an assortment of other problems. Inconsistent offense, oftentimes weak defensive zone play and sub-par goaltending (the Condors are allowing 3.52 goals per game, fourth worst in the league) have made wins difficult to come by.
The first three games of December saw the Condors give up 34 shots (7-3 loss), 35 shots (6-2 loss) and on Friday night 33 shots in a 6-5 overtime loss to Grand Rapids in a game the Condors had two two-goal leads on three occasions.
As usual, Woodcroft found a positive.
“It was a good sign we scored five goals, we haven’t done that in a while,” he said.
Then he addressed the larger issue.
“For us, our focus right now, as we’re in this kind of part of our game we have to get better at, it has to start in the defensive zone,” he said. “I don’t care if you’re a 30-goal scorer or a three goal scorer, you have to take pride in defending. In the last few games our goals against have been unacceptable. It’s not what we’re working towards and we know it’s not a winning recipe going forward.”
On Saturday night, the Condors looked more like last season’s edition as they created opportunities, limited Grand Rapids to just 21 shots and came away with a 2-1 victory.
“Getting us to play toward our identity ” Woodcroft said of the performance. “When we get away from it we have a tough time winning a track meet 7-6 or 6-5.”
And perhaps the best news is that Shane Starrett looked to be back in prime goaltending form.
Like the rest of the team, he had a tough go on Saturday night as he returned to the crease for the first time since Nov. 30 after reaggravating an injury that kept him out of action for seven weeks prior to that start.
Stuart Skinner and Dylan Wells, like the defense in front of them, have struggled during Starrett’s absence. Skinner got the bulk of the work load and is 7-7-2 but with a 3.60 goals against average and .879 save percentage. Wells, in limited action, is 0-3-1 with a 3.36 GAA and .890 save percentage.
Starrett is now 3-1-1 with a 2.59 GAA and .902 save percentage.
“Our thought process in playing (Skinner) back to back was we’ve got to get him up and running again,” Woodcroft said. “He has to get into a rhythm. He’s working his way into the season. This is only his fourth or fifth game. I think the team plays hard in front of him. He’s the backbone and spine of the team. When he’s going we’re a tough team to beat.”
Despite the early season difficulties, the Condors are in the thick of the playoff hunt with the bulk of the season yet to be played.
“I think we’ve weathered the storm of some early season adversity here in Bakersfield,” Woodcroft said. “It’s not fun to go through. No one’s quite pleased as to where our record is but we’re working through that adversity.
“Do we have things we need to correct? Yes. But I thought (Saturday) was a real good sign. We got three out of four points on the weekend against a tough opponent.
“It’s something to build on going forward. We’re going to see the type of maturity we have as a team to see if we can put something together here.”