FITCHBURG, Mass. -- Three years removed from a four-win season, the Patriots appear to have come all the way back.
No. 1 North Middlesex (18-3-2) captured its first Central Mass. Division 3A championship after holding off a late Blue Knight flurry at the Wallace Civic Center. The Patriots will look for their third state crown when they square off against Wahconah (16-6-1) Thursday at the Mass Mutual Center beginning at 7:30 p.m.
North Middlesex won Division 3 titles in 1998 and 1995.
"We beat an unbelievable team tonight," Patriots head coach Mike McCarthy said. "I think a couple of nagging injuries may have slowed them down a bit. Their two top players went off the ice either limping or down a little bit. Overall just an outstanding effort by our guys tonight."
The Patriots jumped on No. 2 Lunenburg (16-3-4) for a couple of goals in the first period. Senior defenseman Miles Massidda blistered a shot from the perimeter at 11:47 to make it 1-0. Then, just three minutes later, defenseman P.J. Dupre ripped a shot that deflected off of Blue Knight netminder Alec McNamara (29 saves) and rolled into the net for a two-goal cushion.
Midway through the second period, Lunenburg failed to take advantage of a pair of power play chances. Since the man-advantage wasn't working for them, the Blue Knights looked more-comfortable playing at even strength. Mike LaManna's sent rocket that bounced off of North Middlesex senior goaltender Ryan Twomey (21 saves) and over to senior forward Kevin Cowdrey, who promptly snapped the puck into the net at 12:46 to get Lunenburg on the board.
In desperate search to land the equalizer, the Blue Knights put themselves in a whole halfway through the third with a couple of ill-advised penalties. Lunenburg killed off the first power play but could not fend off the second as Ryan McCarthy, a junior forward, backhanded the puck from the center slot which eluded McNamara at 9:04, giving the Patriots back their two-goal margin.
"It's sort of surreal right now," Ryan McCarthy said. "We had a large crowd here cheering for us and it's really nice to play with that kind of support. Winning this title is amazing. It's something I've been working for ever since I came here. Our teamwork has really clicked this year. Chemistry is a big thing for us and it's all about how well you work with each other. We really didn't have that last year and we've got it this year and that's why we won."
With just over three minutes to go, junior Dan Baldino answered with a man-advantage goal of this own for the Blue Knights which came too little, too late as North Middlesex ran out the ensuing time off the clock for the victory.
"I thought for our kids played outstanding tonight but North Middlesex just got one more bounce than us," said Lunenburg head coach Eric Short. "Our kids kept plugging away. I thought quality chances were about the same it's just that they capitalized in that first period. When you have two even teams it is hard to battle back from 2-0 down. We were right there till the end but they were able to keep that gap. It wasn't anyone's fault. Somebody had to win."