By Bill Ballou
WORCESTER – This season’s Railers have been imperfect, but indefatigable.
Twenty-fours after squandering a three-goal lead and losing in overtime to the Maine Mariners, 5-4, Worcester bounced back Saturday night with a strong effort and a 3-2 victory that was not easy.
Games with Maine never are.
The Railers took a 2-0 lead late into the third period on goals by Artyom Kulakov and Anthony Repaci, then Maine closed the gap on William Provost’s goal at 12:57. Given the unhappy endings of Worcester’s two previous games with the Mariners, things looked shaky; even shakier when Trevor Cosgrove was called for high sticking at 17:50.
However, Jake Pivonka hit an empty net at 18:54. Sigh of relief?
Not quite. With goalie Shane Starrett on the bench and Cosgrove still in the box, Ethan Ritchie made it 3-2 with 37 seconds left. The Railers kept Maine bottled up in its own zone for the duration, however, and came away with two pure points.
Coach Jordan Smotherman was not surprised with the way his team responded.
“We love our room,” he said. “You could tell (Friday) night, even after the game before they left, that the guys were ready to go. That’s one of the biggest differences between last year’s team and this year’s — these guys really want to be here.”
The victory extended Worcester’s points streak to four games. The Railers have earned seven of eight points in that time and have 48 points overall. That is five more than both Maine and Trois-Rivieres, tied for fifth.
Kulakov gave the Railers a 1-0 lead at 5:52 of the second period as he fired a 35-foot wrist shot past Starrett through a screen. Ashton Calder set him up with a great pass from the right side. Repaci scored shorthanded at 15:04 on a deflection in close.
John Muse improved his record to 9-3-1 with the win. He stopped 26 of Maine’s 28 shots. Worcester has earned 19 of a possible 26 points with Muse in goal, a .731 winning percentage.
The triumph sent the Railers off on the longest road trip, time-wise, in franchise history. They will play six games in Florida, three in Orlando against the Solar Bears, then three in Fort Myers against the Florida Everblades. Worcester will be gone for 14 days and does not play another home game this month.
Florida in February — almost every New Englander’s dream. Smotherman was asked if he was concerned that the Railers will look at this as a vacation, not a work assignment.
“One hundred percent,” he said. “I’ve been the guy on the Florida trip before. I know how that works, but we trust our group, and that’s the other part of it. They are professionals. They need to be professionals. Everything that we’ve seen so far is that they’ve bought in and they want to win hockey games.”
There will be some play to go along with the work. The Railers fly out at 11 Sunday morning and should be in Orlando in time to watch the Super Bowl as a team. They have a couple other touristy things planned, as well.
MAKING TRACKS – The crowd of 6,337 was the second largest of the year and the third above 6,000. The Railers have averaged 4,513 for their last seven home games. They are 3-0-0 with 6,000 or more fans in the DCU Center seats this season. … Both Repaci and Pivonka scored shorthanded. It is the seventh time in team history Worcester had two shorthanded goals in the same game. … Worcester had one lineup switch. Andrei Bakanov was in, Brendan Robbins out. … Cosgrove played in his 72nd Railers game, the equivalent of a full season. He is 10-35-45 in those games, the third leading scorer all-time among Worcester defensemen. Mike Cornell had 65 points in 131 games, Ryan MacKinnon 56 points in 133 games. … The Railers and Mariners do not play again until March 3 in Portland. … Blade Jenkins assisted on Repaci’s goal. His points streak is nine games. He is 11-6-17 during the streak. … Calder has 38 points in 38 games.