BY MIKE GRIFFITH Californian staff writer firstname.lastname@example.org
For the most part, the Bakersfield Condors defense operates under a cloak of anonymity.
No defenseman ranks among the ECHL leaders in points, there are no brawlers who drop the gloves on a regular basis and quite often you may not even notice a majority of the six players on any given night.
Idaho at Condors
When: 4 p.m.
Where: Rabobank Arena
Radio: KHTY (970 AM)
Steelheads record: 15-9-4 before Saturday night's game in Las Vegas
Condors record: 10-15-1
Series: Bakersfield leads 2-1
Notes: Joel Broda has 16 points over the past 10 games and leads the Condors in goals (10) and points (19). Michael Neal has seven points over the last seven games and is second on the team in points with 17 ... Superhero Thor will be available for photos throughout the game at the Condors photo booth on the concourse ... Students bringing a recent report card showing a GPA of 3.0 or higher receive a ticket for half price ... Fans can skate with the team following the game. Skate rentals are available for $5.
Certainly they are far from flashy, but what the rookie-laden group has done very well lately is play solid defense and effectively move the puck out of their own zone.
After a 4-3 win over Las Vegas on Thursday night, the seventh in the past 10 games for the Condors, coach Troy Mann pointed to an improving defense as a big part of the recent success.
On Friday, as an optional skate was taking place, he took time to talk more about his blueliners.
"I think our defense is a little bit unheralded," he said. "You've got the two big dogs there with (Wes) Cunningham and Burgie (Erik Burgdoerfer) that kind of anchor it back there. When (Kyle) Haines left -- you thought Haines would be kind of a No. 3 for you and the young guys would develop slowly -- (the rookies) were pressed into action."
Cunningham is in his sixth season of pro hockey and leads the group with 10 points. Burgdoerfer, in his fifth season (all with Bakersfield), has eight points. Combined, they have 561 games at the pro level.
The other four defensemen -- George Hughes, Joey Leach, Joe Marciano and Nick Pageau -- have a combined 103 games of pro experience. Pageau and Hughes got their first pro goals last week in Idaho. Leach and Marciano are waiting for their first pro goal.
"Thankfully we haven't sustained any injury or (call-up to the American hockey league) in the back end yet and these six guys have been able to just play and build some chemistry together," Mann said. "I think the rookies have really come along."
To that end, Mann partially credits a decision he made to focus more on playing solid defense due to a lack of scoring and porous goaltending early in the season.
"I think we might have backed the D off a little bit in terms of when to pinch, when not to pinch in the offensive zone based on our scoring early because I thought we weren't scoring a lot of goals and had to buckle down defensively," Mann explained. " I think, consequently, it's made us a better defensive team. I think if you look at the teams surrounding us in shots against they're all the best teams in the league."
The Condors, at 10-15-1, are allowing just 26.12 shots per game, third best in the league. Ahead of them in that category are Alaska and Florida. Right behind them are Colorado (leader of the Mountain Division) and Ontario (leader of the Pacific Division).
That's pretty good company for the Condors, who were in the Western Conference basement until a win over Idaho on Dec. 22.
"I'm really happy with the improvement level," Mann said. "We've done a lot of video here, whether it's team stuff or (assistant coach Ryan Murphy) pulling in the D on an individual basis, especially the younger guys. You don't have to pound video on an individual basis, but pull them in and show the odd clip in terms of whether it's D-zone coverage or box-outs or gap ... just stuff like that and I really think it's starting to pay dividends."
Mann said he did not even realize how effective his defensemen had become until a conversation with Idaho coach Brad Ralph last week.
"Brad Ralph made the comment about us having the best gap control in the conference in his opinion I thought that was a great compliment to our young D," Mann said. "They are getting better in those areas and consequently we're having a little bit of success with it."
But for that success to continue Mann said the defense has to continue to improve, especially the rookies.
"Cunny and Burgdoerfer log a lot of minutes and they have to anchor the D and be consistent," Mann said. "The four rookies, we just have to made sure they improve every day. "They have to be better in February than on Dec. 27. That's the goal. I think they're better now than they were in October. We just have to keep making these guys better."