BY MIKE GRIFFITH Californian staff writer firstname.lastname@example.org
Winless in their last five and mired in the basement of the ECHL Western Conference, the Condors desperately need a win.
Enter the best team in league, the Alaska Aces.
ALASKA at CONDORS
When: 7, tonight
Where: Rabobank Arena
Radio: KHTY (970 AM)
Aces record: 14-5-0-0, 28 points
Condors record: 5-11-1-2, 13 points
Notes: Former Condors forward Liam Huculak, who led the Condors in penalties with 168 minutes while netting 11 points in 51 games during the 2008-09 season, is back with the team. Huculak played for Colorado last season and started this season in Croatia on a team coached by former Condors coach Marty Raymond. "(Huculak) is a guy out there who will have a presence, maybe make our guys a little bit better out there physically," Condors coach Matt O'Dette said of the 6-foot-5, 225-pounder. "He'll get up and down the wing and be simple, throw his body around and go to the net. He'll give our guys a little more comfort out there. Another guy who is big and will have their back." ... The Aces have lost just once over their last 10 games ... Alaska has the top penalty kill in the league (89.2 percent) and is tied for the most short-handed goals (six) ... The Condors play their following three games on the road, starting Saturday night in Stockton.
The team with more National Hockey League players -- four, three of whom are on the active roster -- than any other ECHL team.
A team that scored 15 seconds into the game Wednesday night and rolled Stockton 6-2, ending a seven-game home winning streak for the Thunder, which is 4-0 against the Condors.
Those Alaska Aces.
"For us it's about rising to the challenge," Condors coach Matt O'Dette said of the matchup. "If you want to test yourself against NHL players, well, here's your chance."
The Condors are sure to be tested in the only game the Aces play at Rabobank Arena this season.
"I think guys just have to get up for it," Condors forward Tyler Brenner said. "We can't give those guys respect. We have to come out here just like they're any other player. I think guys are excited to play those guys. I know everybody is going to be up and ready to get go."
But these aren't any other players as the stats clearly indicate.
Joey Crabb, Nate Thompson and Scott Gomez are the NHLers on the active roster. Brandon Dubinsky is out with a broken hand.
All told, the four have combined to produce 36 percent of all Aces goals this season and 32 percent of all points.
The impact has been greater than the overall stats in the last three games (all wins), as Thompson and Crabb alone have had a hand (either goals or assists) on nine of the 16 goals scored in those three games. That's a whopping 56 percent.
"You try not to make too big a deal of it," Condors defenseman Ryan Annesley said of the task ahead. "If we just stick to our game plan it should be good against anybody. Obviously, you have to be aware when those guys are on the ice and try not to give them a whole lot of time and space but try not to steer too far from the original game plan."
Here's a look at what the Condors have to contain to have a chance at victory:
Crabb (144 NHL games) has eight goals and 13 assists in 18 games and leads the Aces with 21 points.
Thompson (265 NHL games) has six goals and 12 assists in 19 games and Gomez (902 NHL games) has two goals and three assists in five games.
The Aces signed Gomez, who had been practicing with the team when Dubinsky (393 NHL games) was injured. Dubinsky has eight goals and four assists in 12 games with the Aces.
"Obviously, they've got their NHL guys and if you can't get fired up to meet that challenge you should probably try a different profession," O'Dette said. "They always have a good team and you always look forward to playing them to knock them off.
"I think Bakersfield has kind of got a small rivalry going with them over the years and unfortunately we only get them once in our building. So here's our chance."
The rivalry has cooled in recent years but reached a boiling point in the first round the 2004-2005 playoffs. Gomez, then in the prime of his career, played with the Aces that lockout season and had his season come to a painful end in Game 4 at Rabobank Arena. Bakersfield's Ashlee Langdone checked Gomez hard, sending him hip first into the opening of the bench door at the exact moment the trainer opened it for a line change, leaving Gomez with a broken pelvis.
Death threats from Aces fans resulted in a police escort to a hotel for the Condors when they arrived in Anchorage before Game 5 a couple of days later. There were no problems (not much of a crowd at the Anchorage airport at midnight) but the team kept as low a profile as possible prior to the game.
The Aces won that deciding game and then-Aces coach Davis Payne and several players refused to participate in the traditional on-ice handshake at the conclusion of the series.