By Mike Griffith
Californian Staff Writer
The Bakersfield Californian
BAKERSFIELD, Calif. – The heavy lifting is done. Now the really hard work begins. The Condors begin a best-of-seven Kelly Cup Playoffs series against the Las Vegas Wranglers on Friday at the Orleans Arena in Las Vegas.
Few would have given the Condors much of a chance of making the playoffs back in early February. They blew a three-goal lead at home against Idaho on Feb. 4 for their third straight loss — their 11th defeat in 16 games — and were 12 games below .500.
A playoff push at that time appeared about as likely as a Condor sighting in Antarctica.
Two days later, the Condors hit the ice with a giant chip on their shoulder, beat a very good Alaska team in a physically punishing game and started an improbable run to the playoffs.
The team, despite an assortment of distractions including the suspension of coach Marty Raymond and assistant coach Mark Pederson for one and two weeks, respectively, finished with a 19-5-2 mark, leapfrogged three teams and came up one point short of finishing second in the ECHL Pacific Division and securing home-ice advantage in the first round of the playoffs.
They head into the playoffs full of confidence but not over confident.
“I don’t think anyone is overconfident, I think we’re really excited, actually,” said center Dave Bonk (pictured), who led the Condors with 82 points. “We want to get this going. It’s been like we’ve been in playoffs for two months so I don’t think anyone’s cocky right now at all.
“We know Vegas is a really good team. They’re going to be prepared for us just like we’re preparing for them but it is nice to have that kind of run in you back pocket going into playoffs.”
Team captain Jay Langager agreed.
“We’re pretty grounded,” said Langager, who joined the team in early January. “We’ve done this for the last 25 games. Confidence is a big thing but you can’t get too confident. You have to respect your opponent. By the same token, when you play with confidence you bring a new element to the game.”
That new element was on display for the final third of the season as the Condors transformed from a team which couldn’t seem to find a way to win to one which found a multitude of ways to win.
“The first couple of weeks I was here it seemed we always found a way to lose,” said Langager. “Now it seems we find a way to always win whether our goalie stands on his head one day, the D plays great the next, the forwards light it up or a we get big goal from the third line. Whatever it is, we’re finding ways to win and that’s what good teams do. We have to bring that into the playoffs.”
Bonk said the way in which the Condors have been able to win games down the stretch, including two in overtime, has them mentally prepared for the playoffs.
“I think the biggest thing is we have confidence in our ability to come back and our ability to score goals,” Bonk said. “When you’re going into the playoffs there’s going to be games when you’re down a couple of goals and knowing you can score goals and come back is pretty important because you don’t have to change your systems, you don’t panic. I think the biggest thing is knowing how to win and having confidence in all of our lines and all of our guys that we can get it down whether we’re behind or ahead.”
Raymond said the Condors won’t be doing much different in the playoffs than they have down the stretch and he expects to see pretty much the same Las Vegas team as well.
“We know what they do, they’re a very systematic team (as are the Condors),” Raymond said. “We’re in the same division, we know each other and we’re not going to change a lot of things. We’ll have a few tweaks here and there but that’s about it. (Las Vegas coach) Glen Gulutzan has done a good job coaching and they will be well prepared.”