That’s all the Worcester Railers needed to get over the entirety of the 2021-22 regular season to have qualified for the ECHL’s North Division playoffs for the first time since their inaugural 2017-18 season.
Obviously, it’s easy to point to their final 11 games when they went 3-7-1 or list all the games they all but failed to show up for. But as comical as this sounds, they could have, and arguably should have, qualified for the postseason anyway. There were numerous games over the course of the season where they were in a position to gain two points and then failed to do so, and/or gave away points to a division rival.
Some of those games were…
November 12, 2021
Railers had a 2-1 lead entering the third period when they took a lazy hooking penalty and gave up a power play goal. They ended up losing 3-2 in a shootout.
November 24, 2021
Railers lead Maine 2-0 after one period and then got out-shot 28-18 and outscored 4-0 the rest of the way. Two of the Mariners’ goals were on the power play, and one was an empty net.
December 8, 2021
Railers lost a 4-2 third period lead to Maine, and while Worcester won in the shootout they gave a point to Maine that the Mariners had no business getting.
December 29, 2021
Railers score seven goals and lose to Maine 9-7 because goaltender Jason Pawloski couldn’t stop a beach ball that night. Maine’s Jeremy Brodeur gave up all seven Railers goals and still got the win, which gave Maine another two points they shouldn’t have had.
January 7, 2022
Railers lead 2-1 with three minutes to go in the third, and end up losing 3-2 in overtime to Reading.
January 30, 2022
Railers lead 3-0 after one period and went on to lose 6-4 to Fort Wayne. (Apropos of nothing, it was also the last Railers game referee Alex Normandin worked for the season.)
February 5, 2022
Railers lead 1-0 with three minutes to go in the third, ended up losing 2-1 in overtime to Kalamazoo.
February 6, 2022
Worcester allows a goal in the final minute of regulation to lose 2-1 to Kalamazoo.
February 21, 2022
Railers up 3-1 in the second and Utah comes back to tie it, then Worcester is up 4-3 early in the third and loses 5-4 in regulation.
March 5, 2022
Railers lead 3-0 after two periods vs Maine and then lost 4-3 in overtime.
April 10, 2022
Worcester was up 4-2 early in the third against Adirondack and went on to lose 6-4.
That’s a whole lot of points left on the board, more than enough to easily qualify for the playoffs despite everything else that happened this season. Granted that still wouldn’t be enough to get to second place and home-ice advantage in the opening round, but just getting into the playoffs was the realistic goal for this season, and anything else would be a bonus.
Now I’m sure there are folks in the peanut gallery who look at that list and are wondering about all the points the Railers managed to steal from other teams’ failures because Worcester did indeed do that in a handful of games.
Well, what about them?
It’s the job of a hockey team to get as many points as possible while preventing their opponents from doing the same. Stealing points is part of what a team is supposed to do, so talking about Worcester stealing some is essentially asking “what about the games the Railers did their job?”. You could make an argument that Worcester didn’t steal enough of them, and to that, I would generally agree.
There’s also a lot of blame to be placed on how the ECHL handled the COVID situation. The Railers played two games they had no business playing in, and three more they should have refused to have rescheduled at the times they were placed.
Before the ECHL decided to use points percentage instead of just points Worcester brought in players that really had no business playing pro hockey to fill out their line-up. On December 26th against Adirondack, Worcester brought in Jason Salvaggio to get to the 13-player minimum. Salvaggio was a bonafide ECHL’er in his day but hadn’t played in two seasons. It showed as the Railers lost 5-0 using Jimmy Poreda in goal. New Year’s Eve in Reading Worcester iced a near beer-league line-up as they brought back Matty Gaudreau for a game, along with five guys that probably would have been outclassed in the Men’s senior leagues in Marlborough, and managed just 14 shots on goal in a 2-0 loss.
If Worcester had known they would have benefited from not playing they absolutely wouldn’t have worked as hard as they did finding players.
The same holds true for the two rescheduled games in Reading that the Railers agreed to play before the decision was made to go to points percentage to qualify for the playoffs. Playing those games in Reading on a Tuesday and Wednesday, and adding a Wednesday game in Trois-Rivieres the last week of the regular season put Worcester at a competitive disadvantage, forcing them to play 19 games in 32 days to close out the season. Of the 13 days they had off, they traveled on at least five of them.
It’s bewildering why the PHPA didn’t have something to say about all those scheduled games. Or maybe they did and there was nothing that could have been done about it. We’ll likely never know.
Not playing those three games would have resulted in at least five additional days off, and anyone who watched this incredibly tired team over the last month knows how important those rest days would have been.
There were two trades that has a big impact on the Railers’ roster, and each of them contributed in a significant way to Worcester coming up just short in the playoff chase. The first happened on October 19, 2021, when Worcester traded future considerations to the Indy Fuel for the player rights to Nic Pierog. At the time this was a no-brainer trade to make; Pierog was under contract to the Springfield Thunderbirds and in order to assign him to the Railers Worcester needed to acquire his rights. Unfortunately, it all fell apart when Pierog jumped ship to go play for HKM Zvolen in the Slovakia league after just five games with Worcester.
Then, to make matters worse, the future consideration the Fuel was to get was a player, and that turned out to be defenseman Zack Malatesta. And then the Railers took a further hit when the Fuel immediately traded Malatesta to the Maine Mariners, the team Worcester eventually finished behind in the standings. Oh, and how did Pierog do in Europe? He suffered a season-ending injury after just five games.
The second trade was one that hopefully will result in a change of the trade rules in the ECHL. A week before the ECHL’s trade deadline the Railers sent fan-favorite Ross Olsson to the Orlando Solar Bear in exchange for veteran defenseman Nolan Valleau. Again, pretty much a no-brainer trade as Worcester badly needed a stabilizing blueliner. Fans were not thrilled to see Olsson going away, but trading what was basically a power-play specialist forward that could fight a bit for a position that needed a massive upgrade is certainly something that could be sold by the team provided Valleau was as advertised.
Only fans in Worcester never found out because Valleau decided to not report to the Railers.
It’s the second time in franchise history the Railers made a trade with Orlando and the player didn’t report. Worcester traded Jake Bolton to Orlando on November 15, 2019, in exchange for Jake Marchment, who didn’t report to Worcester. Dave Cunniff, who was hired by Worcester after the trade, reached out to Marchment and offered to work out a deal to trade him elsewhere but Marchment had essentially retired at that point.
The Railers weren’t the only team who got short-changed in that trade. Orlando immediately wheeled Bolton to Tulsa for defenseman Eric Drapluk, and Bolton didn’t report to Tulsa. He instead left for Norway to play for Narvik Hockey. Bolton is the only one of the three still playing and has had three really good years in Europe.
The ECHL needs a rule to hold teams accountable for players refusing to report for trades. And part of that rule should include increasing penalties for teams that have multiple players refusing to report. Hopefully, such a rule can be put in place this offseason.
The trades of John Furgele (cash considerations) and Karl Boudrias (future considerations) got a lot of traction on Facebook, and while Furgele played pretty well here it was obvious he didn’t get the system Cunniff was trying to put in place. Why Furgele didn’t work in the system is certainly debatable, including the possibility that Cunniff’s systems are too complex for the ECHL. We may never know exactly why, but it’s a good bet Tulsa called looking for a defenseman and Cunniff took the opportunity to move the defenseman.
As for Boudrias, from day one he didn’t impress those that sit around this writer’s perch. He might be a decent 5/6 ECHL guy on a team with good defensive depth, but his defensive failures got exposed night in and night out in Worcester. He was also billed as a puck-moving defender, and if that’s what he was supposed to be eight assists in 23 games isn’t cutting it.
I have no doubt Railers head coach and general manager Dave Cunniff learned a lot of lessons this season. Presuming some of the core group of players comes back next season the framework is in place to have a very solid team in 2022-2023. They need to be better defensively, they need to win more puck battles, and they need to play with a bit more grit. If we can see these things, it’s a sure thing Cunniff does too.
And with Worcester’s season unfortunately ending early, he has plenty of time to scout for those kinds of players.
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