? by Patrick Williams
Another Thursday, another day for the Bakersfield Condors to pack the bus and start a southbound trip down the I-5.
This weekend’s American Hockey League schedule sends the Condors south again for a meeting with the San Diego Gulls. The home-and-home battle between the Pacific Division rivals starts tonight when the Gulls welcome Bakersfield in the AHLTV Free Game of the Week (10 ET/7 PT).
“They have a really good coach (Jay Woodcroft), a well-experienced guy and detail-oriented, so they’re good team,” Gulls head coach Joel Bouchard said of Bakersfield.
The teams then make the trip north to Bakersfield for a return meeting Saturday night. Last Friday provided a quick first impression for each team, and Woodcroft knows that rivalry will only grow this weekend.
Last Friday night at Pechanga Arena, the Condors forced overtime on a Markus Niemelainen goal with 3:09 to go in regulation. San Diego’s Jacob Perreault eventually earned the Gulls a second point with his shootout-winning goal. Now both teams are coming off a productive Wednesday that began this week. The Gulls (3-5-0-0) finished off the visiting Henderson Silver Knights at home, 6-3. Bakersfield (4-4-1-1) pushed back against the streaking Stockton Heat, rallying from 3-1 and 4-2 holes to earn a point in a 5-4 overtime loss.
“We saw [what Bakersfield has] last weekend,” Bouchard said. “It was a fight that could have went either way.”
Bakersfield and San Diego have been development powerhouses in recent seasons, churning out National Hockey League-ready talent. The parent Edmonton Oilers can count Tyler Benson, Evan Bouchard, Leon Draisaitl, Ryan McLeod, Darnell Nurse, Jesse Puljujarvi, and Kailer Yamamoto among their Bakersfield alumni. Oilers goaltender Stuart Skinner, whose 20 wins with Bakersfield led the AHL last season, made 35 saves in his second career NHL start on Tuesday night in Detroit.
Simon Benoit, Max Comtois, Jamie Drysdale, Max Jones, Isac Lundestrom, Sam Steel, Anthony Stolarz, Troy Terry, and Trevor Zegras all are San Diego-developed products with the parent Anaheim Ducks. Ryan Getzlaf, John Gibson, Hampus Lindholm, and Josh Manson also came up through the Ducks’ AHL system.
Now a new group of top prospects will take over in the Bakersfield-San Diego rivalry, starting with Condors defenseman Philip Broberg. At 20 years old and possessing two full seasons of Swedish Hockey League experience, Broberg went to Edmonton as the eighth overall pick in the 2019 NHL Draft.
Edmonton management then brought Broberg to North America this season, and he has delivered seven assists in 10 AHL games to put him second in scoring among rookie defensemen. Broberg also quarterbacks the Condors’ top power-play unit; the Bakersfield power play ranks seventh in the AHL at 24.4 percent and has scored at least once in each of the team’s 10 games this season.
“I’m very excited about Philip Broberg and his potential effect on the Edmonton Oilers one day,” Woodcroft said. “For me, he is in a great spot, because he’s adjusting to the North American brand of hockey. He’s playing important minutes. He has been someone who’s impressed at the offensive blue line. He’s got great legs.
“And for him, as a young player, as a 20-year-old [in a tough league], he’s going to make some mistakes. But when those gaffes happen, they’re not on the front page of the newspaper [in Edmonton] or leading the evening sports programs. That’s what the American League develops, to learn from those moments in games and then eventually show growth, but I think he’s building confidence every day. I believe he’s growing before our eyes.”
Difficult opponents like San Diego will test Broberg this season.
“We expect a high-paced game,” Broberg said of Friday’s meeting. “They have a lot of skill.”
San Diego rookie forward Brayden Tracey, who went to Anaheim 29th overall in the 2019 NHL Draft, had a 12-game run with the Gulls last season and has taken over second place in team scoring with seven points (two goals, five assists) through eight contests in 2021-22. One of those goals came last week against Bakersfield when Tracey took Trevor Carrick’s outlet pass at center ice and then muscled past 6-foot-7, 229-pound Condors defenseman Vincent Desharnais for his first AHL goal.
Bouchard built on his reputation as a demanding, exacting head coach in his three seasons with the Laval Rocket. That approach enticed Anaheim management to hire him this past summer, and he has taken that same stance in San Diego with a new group that features top prospects like Tracey.
“I think that’s what they need so they can have a chance to play [at the] next level,” Bouchard said. “Tracey’s been great on that and really understanding. Even if right now he has a little bit of success with the points and the offense, he was in the office and we showed some clips. He knows that this is where the standards are, and there’s no smoke and mirrors with me.
“They know that every little detail is going to be checked out, and I’m going to be commenting on it.”
Tracey has bought in to that approach in full.
“Joel’s a really good coach,” Tracey said after practice Thursday morning. “I think he pushes me to an extent, and gives me a say with all the players. He’s hard on us, but he’s good. He pushes us to be the best and only makes us better, and I think that’s his job.
“I’ve got a lot of confidence through him and the style of play that he plays.”
Playing in San Diego also means playing in front of the loudest crowds in the AHL.
“Really loud, really good,” Tracey said of the Pechanga Arena atmosphere. “[Gulls fans] can switch a game for us. We love it.”
UTICA LAST OF THE UNBEATENS
The Utica Comets’ new affiliation with the New Jersey Devils is off to some kind of start.
A Veterans Day matinee 3-1 win against the rival Syracuse Crunch advanced the Comets’ record to a league-best 8-0-0-0. In his Comets debut after beginning the season in New Jersey, Marian Studenic helped to set up the victory, winning a third-period battle along the left boards and setting up Fabian Zetterlund’s game-winning goal. A.J. Greer produced his first two goals of the season as well.
Utica’s streak will be tested this weekend, with a meeting Saturday at Laval and a visit to Belleville on Sunday.
The 1984-85 Rochester Americans hold the AHL record for longest winning streak to start a season (11).
MOOSE PEPPER INGRAM IN OT WIN
Shots from the Manitoba Moose poured in on Milwaukee Admirals netminder Connor Ingram all Wednesday night.
Amid a franchise-record 60 shots, including 45 in the final 40 minutes of regulation, Ingram’s 56 saves pulled out a point for Milwaukee in a 4-3 overtime loss. Since returning from the Nashville Predators and making his AHL season debut last weekend, Ingram, a two-time AHL All-Star, has gone 2-0-1 in three appearances to go with a 2.24 goals-against average and .948 save percentage.
HEAT REMAIN HOT…
Stockton’s 5-4 win at Bakersfield on Wednesday gave the Heat their eighth consecutive victory, matching a record set last season.
A pair of rookies led the way, as goaltender Dustin Wolf stopped a career-best 41 shots and forward Jakob Pelletier, the 26th overall pick in the 2019 NHL Draft, supplied two goals, including the overtime winner. The 20-year-old is up to 11 points (four goals, seven assists) in his first nine pro games.
Stockton received another boost Wednesday with the return of rookie forward Connor Zary from injury. Taken 24th in the 2020 NHL Draft by the parent Calgary Flames, Zary impressed in a nine-game AHL stint last season before he returned to the Western Hockey League.
… BUT REIGN KEEP PACE
Despite Stockton’s run, the Heat find themselves second in the Pacific Division as they try to chase down the Ontario Reign.
With their own eight-game winning streak and a season-opening 10-game point streak, the Reign are playing .950 hockey (9-0-0-1) after finishing the abbreviated 2020-21 regular season with seven wins in their last eight. Martin Frk, the reigning AHL Player of the Week, has put up 13 points in his last five games.
Starting tonight, head coach John Wroblewski’s team will put that run on the line with a two-game visit to Tucson.
AROUND THE AHL
? Two more Hershey players made their NHL debuts this week with the Washington Capitals — goaltender Zach Fucale and forward Axel Jonsson-Fjallby. Fucale, whose 1.80 GAA led the AHL last season, made 21 stops at Detroit on Thursday to become the first goaltender in franchise history to record a shutout in his NHL debut.
? Belleville is coping with several recalls to the Ottawa Senators, with goaltender Filip Gustavsson along with defensemen Erik Brannstrom, Dillon Heatherington, and Lassi Thomson on recall as the NHL club deals with COVID-19 protocols. Forwards Andrew Agozzino, Parker Kelly, Scott Sabourin, and Egor Sokolov have been summoned as well. Sokolov and Thomson saw their first NHL action this week, bringing the number of AHL players to make their NHL debuts in 2021-22 up to 40.
? The Bridgeport Islanders started their season-high five-game road trip in style Wednesday, taking a 3-1 win at Syracuse behind 35 saves from Jakub Skarek for the team’s first road win. The Islanders have a trip into Laval tonight, followed by a Saturday night date with Belleville. Forward Otto Koivula has picked up a point in nine of his past 10 games.
? The Lehigh Valley Phantoms’ penalty kill took over in a 4-1 win at Hershey on Wednesday, scoring back-to-back shorthanded goals 44 seconds apart to break open the game. Forward Morgan Frost has started to heat up and owns seven points (one goal, six assists) in his past five games, three of them multi-point performances.
? An impressive 6-3-0-0 start has the Rochester Americans tied for second place in the North Division. In a 5-1 win at Wilkes-Barre/Scranton on Wednesday, top goaltending prospect Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen made 41 saves and first-round picks Jack Quinn and Peyton Krebs combined on the game-winning goal early in the second period.
? Springfield Thunderbirds forward Sam Anas broke out for two goals in a win at Providence on Wednesday. At 8-1-2-0, the Thunderbirds are fourth overall in the AHL.
? Already holding down first place in the Central Division, the 6-2-0-0 Chicago Wolves will have another major piece back in their line-up with Jamieson Rees on assignment from the Carolina Hurricanes. Injured before the start of this season, Rees put up 14 points (eight goals, six assists) in 29 games last season as a rookie with the Wolves.
ON THE MOVE
? The Charlotte Checkers welcomed back goaltender Christopher Gibson and defenseman Chase Priskie from the Florida Panthers while the Seattle Kraken returned forward Max McCormick to the Checkers; defenseman Lucas Carlsson is on recall to Florida.
? New York Rangers defenseman Libor Hajek is on a conditioning loan to the Hartford Wolf Pack.
? Providence Bruins center Jack Studnicka is back from Boston; Studnicka has two points in four games with the P-Bruins this season.
? Detroit top forward prospect Joe Veleno, a first-round draft pick in 2018, has returned to the Grand Rapids Griffins.
? Defensemen Wyatt Kalynuk made his season debut for Rockford on Wednesday and scored a goal in the IceHogs’ overtime loss to Iowa.
? The Colorado Avalanche and Colorado Eagles swapped forwards this week — Alex Newhook earned a promotion after posting 11 points in 10 AHL games, and Sampo Ranta returned to the Eagles after skating in 10 contests with the Avs.
? Riley Tufte, Dallas’s first-round selection in the 2016 NHL Draft, has been recalled from Texas and could make his NHL debut this weekend.
Wilkes-Barre/Scranton welcomes Charlotte for back-to-back games as the Checkers start a six-game road swing… Rochester hosts the Cleveland Monsters in a two-game North Division match-up… The Toronto Marlies visit Chicago for back-to-back games this weekend, the first meetings between the clubs since Apr. 19, 2015; Sunday’s game will air live on NHL Network… Hartford hits the road to face rivals Springfield (Friday) and Providence (Saturday)… Manitoba’s six-game trip comes to a close this weekend at Grand Rapids… Milwaukee faces two road games at the Iowa Wild this weekend; captain Cole Schneider had a hat trick in the teams’ last meeting, a 4-2 Admirals victory on Nov. 6… A Colorado-Texas two-gamer opens Friday night at H-E-B Center in Cedar Park; the Eagles swept a pair from the Stars in Colorado last week… Henderson’s five-game road stretch moves on to Stockton for a pair of games with the Heat… The San Jose Barracuda pay a two-game visit to Abbotsford.
“You hope that you come out of these things a stronger team, a little bit tougher [having] gone through some adversity early on, know how to handle it, know you can get out of it, know what it takes to get out of it. But we’re going to try to learn as much as we can from this process and hopefully come out stronger.”
— Wilkes-Barre/Scranton head coach J.D. Forrest on handling an early four-game losing streak.
Patrick Williams has been on the American Hockey League beat for nearly two decades for outlets including NHL.com, Sportsnet, TSN, The Hockey News, SiriusXM NHL Network Radio and SLAM! Sports. He is currently the co-host of the Around the A Podcast.
Patrick was the recipient of the AHL’s James H. Ellery Memorial Award for his outstanding coverage of the league in 2016.