FITCHBURG -- Many counted the North Middlesex Patriots (8-8-4) ice hockey team out of the playoff picture, but they battled hard up until the final whistle of their last game of the regular season. The Patriots were able to edge their way into the district playoffs, all while not tallying a single goal.
Scoring has been at a premium for the Patriots, who have only tickled the back of the net 37 times this season. Competitors never like to tie -- that is, unless the tie means playoffs.
Patriots' goaltender Ryan Twomey stymied 14 shots in the 0-0 draw with Oakmont, and the Pats' defensemen really put on a shot-blocking clinic.
"My old coach John Jamison really assisted me a lot in keeping focused on this year," said first-year North Middlesex head coach Mike McCarthy. "He was constantly on me that you play to win the next game, until you are mathematically eliminated."
As the season waged on, the Patriots evolved into a more complete team, one with an edge. North Middlesex quickly grew sick of the naysayers, and started their playoff campaign early. Clinching earlier in the season, while less stressful, can cause a team to lose their mojo. The Patriots have been playing playoff hockey for more than two weeks and feel that their lack of rest has prepared them for the extended season grind.
Tthe first period often sets the tempo for the game, and both teams came out with stalwart defensive performances. Oakmont forward Cameron Klahre uncorked a slapshot from just over the blue line, but Twomey snatched it with precision with 12:45 remaining in the first period.
North Middlesex's Danny McNamara had a quality chance on goal midway through the first period from the left faceoff circle, but his shot was stymied by Oakmont keeper Marcus Deon. The Patriots were the aggressor throughout, outshooting the Spartans 8-4 in the opening frame.
Sophomore Ryan McCarthy lifted a wrist shot from the left side that clanged off the iron and out of danger with 7:00 left in the period. Neither team mustered much offensive fire power in the second period. Gage Deteau tried his luck with a delayed wrist shot from the point, but Twomey was able to slide to his right and corral the puck.
McNamara tried desperately to punch the puck through the legs of Deon with less than nine minutes left in the second period, but his attempt was unsuccessful.
Early in the third period, both the Spartans and Patriots had chances to take the lead, but stellar goal-tending from Deon and Twomey made it near impossible. North Middlesex had a high-quality opportunity from Will Faullkner with 18.1 seconds left in regulation, but his wrister panged off the crossbar. But it didn't matter, as the Patriots are heading to the district playoffs.
"From the beginning of the season, it has meant a lot," said Twomey on making the playoffs. "Especially not losing in the last 10 or 11 games. We have come together as a team, and I feel we can make a run for it."