By Bill Ballou
WORCESTER – The Railers always seem to save their best for first.
Take Saturday night’s 5-2 victory over Adirondack in the season’s opening game. It was not a 5-2 game — Worcester scored two empty-netters at the end — but it was a terrific game, fast and intense for 60 minutes and there was a lot to recommend it to the 6,081 Opening Night fans.
“I liked the way we played throughout the whole game,” coach Jordan Smotherman.
The Railers never trailed but it got close.
Worcester scored three goals in the game’s first 8:21, but it was a 3-2 game heading into the third period. Per usual, Henrik Tikkanen made big saves when it counted as the Thunder fired 13 shots on him in the final 20 minutes. The Railers got the only two goals though as Jake Pivonka hit the empty net at 19:18, Anthony Repaci at 19:50.
Those first three Worcester goals came from, in order — Quinn Ryan, Anthony Calder and Christian Krygier. Krygier, Pivonka and Calder all added assists as well to lead the Railers offense.
The three goals came on five shots. It was a rude welcome to pro hockey for Thunder goaltender Tyler Brennan. The rookie was playing in his first professional game and had turned 20 just last month. He recovered very well after that, though, and stopped each of the next 24 shots he faced.
Ryan Smith and — who else but — Patrick Grasso scored for Adirondack.
Krygier was an offensive force as a defenseman, something the Railers have lacked a bit in recent seasons. His goal, the game winner, came via a pass from behind the goal line that ricocheted off Brennan, then into the goal off a defenseman.
Smotherman had no problem at all with one of his D-men venturing that far into enemy territory.
“We enourage our guys to play as five interchangeable players,” the coach said, “so if a D leads the rush we’ve got two forwards to send back and if two Ds lead the rush we’ll have guys back to cover them. That’s the way we want to play, so if a guy wants to go we’ll make sure we have someone back there taking care of him.”
The goal was Krygier’s first as a pro, but the game was not his pro debut. He played briefly for Bridgeport at the end of last season. With the Railers giving their defenseman some freedom to freelance, Krygier may be in the right place at the right time here in Worcester.
“I haven’t played in a system like that for a few years now,” Krygier said, “and honestly, it’s refreshing to play in a system where guys are accountable, knowing where they should be even if it’s not their position. At any point, any guy can just pick up the puck and go.
“It’s more dynamic and harder to defend for a team when you have guys who can take the puck up ice, then down low, and kind of mess around with it near the net.”
Ryan’s goal came a mere 3:06 into the season. While there are 71 games left, it may go down as one of the year’s Top Ten anyway. Pivonka found Ryan behind the defense with a nifty pass from the Railers zone and Ryan had a long breakaway.
He finished with a terrific backhander just under the crossbar.
Calder scored less than a half-minute later. He slammed in a short one from just above the crease, Blade Jenkins getting him the puck from the left wing. Krygier’s goal gave the Railers a 3-0 lead on the ricochet shot.
Adirondack got on the scoreboard at 17:08 of the first period on Smith’s goal. He beat Tikkanen from the right boards. Grasso, who scored 37 goals last season — 39 of them against Worcester, or so it seemed — made it 3-2 with a shorthanded breakaway at 13:39 of the second.
That was it until the empty netters.
The victory improved the Railers to 6-0-0 all-time in home openers. They are 5-1-0 in opening games, period. The only loss was in Maine three seasons ago.
MAKING TRACKS – Repaci is this year’s captain. Jenkins and Jake Schultz are the alternates. … Joey Cipollone was the only Railer to make his pro debut Saturday night. … Worcester’s DND list included Jack Quinlivan, who is on injured reserve; Andrei Bakanov, Adam Goodsir, John Copeland and Artyom Kulakov. … The Railers are at home again Sunday afternoon at 3:05. They play, for the first of 14 times this season, the Trois-Rivieres Lions. Former IceCat Pascal Rheaume is not with Trois-Riverieres. He was hired as an assistant coach at Bridgeport. … Former Railers who played for the Thunder were Yannick Turcotte, Grant Jozefek and Brendan Less. The stage was set for a Turcotte-Jake Schultz encounter, it seemed, but the opportunity never arose. … Worcester played the Thunder eight times in the last 10 games of last year and plays Adirondack four times in the first seven games this year. … Krygier, Pivonka and Calder joined the long list of players with goals in their first game in a Worcester uniform. … Here is the list, in order, of other Railers scoring the team’s first goal of the year — Wade Murphy, Barry Almeida, Jordan Samuels-Thomas, Nick Albano and Brent Beaudoin. … It was just the second time in team history Worcester scored two empty net goals in the same game.