FITCHBURG — On paper, the match-up between an 8-1 Worcester team and a 1-8 North Middlesex squad on Saturday night appeared to be a mis-match.
That is why the games are played on ice.
In what turned out to be one of the most exciting games of the season, North Middlesex’s Ryan Malette took a pass from Ryan Baldinelli with two seconds left and fired a one-timer past Worcester goaltender Nick Gerardi to earn the Patriots a 5-5 tie.
Baldinelli and Malette each paced the Patriots with two goals and two assists, while Casey Scott added a goal, and Mike Cunha earned three assists. North Middlesex goaltender Terrence Dineen came up big, stopping 34 shots.
North Middlesex played an outstanding second period, scoring three goals to take a 3-1 lead. With seven minutes remaining in the game, the Patriots seemed destined for the upset, still holding a 4-2 lead, but Worcester showed their pedigree and turned their play up a notch, scoring three consecutive goals. The backbreaker appeared to come off the stick of Mike Binkoski, who fielded a soft pass from Ryan Keddy and blasted a slap shot into the net to make it 5-4 with only 58 seconds left.
North Middlesex didn’t quit, and mounted pressure in the offensive end. That pressure paid off when Baldinelli found Malette with a perfect pass outside the right post, and Malette beat the buzzer with a strong wrist shot.
“It is a plus to throw away the game and get it back,” said North Middlesex coach Billy Graves. “It is gratifying to get the tie because the kids didn’t quit after Worcester took the lead. That just shows that we came to play tonight.”
Worcester controlled play in the first period with a commanding 14-5 edge in shots on goal, but were held to a single goal by Dineen.
The Wildcats broke the ice at 5:35 when Mike Fask netted a short shot from outside the left post after taking a pass from Shane Keddy.
Dineen made a pair of outstanding stops in the period to keep his team within striking distance.
At five minutes, Worcester’s Byron Grinnell caught up to a lead pass and broke in alone, but was denied by Dineen from close range.
Five minutes later, James Gloshinski sifted a pass to Alex Chade, whose testing shot from close range was stopped by Dineen.
North Middlesex only had five shots in the first 15 minutes, but had a pair of solid scoring opportunities.
At 3:30, David Wholey and Leo LeBlanc executed a perfect two-on-one, but Gerardi stopped LeBlanc’s shot.
At 13:30, Adam McCarthy picked up a loose puck in front of the net and fired a shot toward the open net, but Gerardi lunged and made a great stick save.
The Patriots totally turned things around in the second period, intensifying their play at both ends and owning a 14-6 edge in shots on goal.
Baldinelli tied the game at 3:58, circling the net and tucking a shot inside the near post, Malette and Ryan O’Neill earning assists.
Malette put the Patriots on top 2-1 at 6:25 when he weaved through multiple Worcester players and netted a shot from close range. Cunha and Baldinelli assisted on the goal.
The Patriots continued to be aggressive offensively and it continued to pay off as at 9:15 Scott made it 3-1, assisted by Malette and Cunha.
But before the ink had dried on that goal and before the Pats could pull away, the Wildcats answered just 17 seconds later when Ryan Keddy finished off a strong left wing rush with a well-placed shot into the upper left corner to make it 3-2 after two periods.
The Patriots rebuilt their two goal lead at 3:55 of the third period when Cunha broke up a Worcester rush and made a pretty drop pass to Baldinelli, who skated in alone, deked Gerardi and tucked a backhander into the net.
That goal seemed to light a fire under the Wildcats and they started to control play.
At 8:50, Binkoski sliced the lead to 4-3 when he scored on a low wrist shot from the slot.
Two minutes later, Bryan Sullivan drew the Wildcats even when he blasted a slap shot from the right point through a screen of players past Dineen.
“We came out in the second period and did a good job of picking up our men in the defensive zone,” said Graves. “We moved well without the puck and played hard-nosed hockey in the defensive end. In the third period we left players open and we paid for it.
“Worcester is a good hockey team and Terrence did a great job in goal for us tonight,” added Graves. “We have a win and a tie in our last two games and I think we are starting to turn things around.”