The North Middlesex ice hockey team listens to instructions during a pause in Thursday’s practice at the Wallace Civic Center at Fitchburg State
The North Middlesex ice hockey team listens to instructions during a pause in Thursday's practice at the Wallace Civic Center at Fitchburg State University. SENTINEL & ENTERPRISE / NICK MALLARD

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In high school sports, success is often cyclical.

Dynasty-like programs are built and seemingly fall within a span of a decade. Highs and lows come and go just as frequently as graduating classes.

With that in mind, it should come as no surprise that the North Middlesex Regional ice hockey team seems to be trending upward after sneaking into the postseason last year. Don't call that playoff appearance a fluke; the Patriots are wasting no time following up that berth with a solid start to the 2013-14 campaign in search of their first Central Mass. crown since the 2005-06 season.

"It's a relief. My freshman year, we only won three games, but we've been improving ever since," senior captain P.J. Dupre said. "It's nice to start this well. I think we'll make the playoffs easily. Fifteen wins is what I'm hoping for."

Leading the charge for the Patriots (5-2) thus far has been the potent line of senior Dan McNamara and juniors Josh Miller -- currently out with an injury -- and Ryan McCarthy. Offensively explosive, the trio has combined to score 19 of the team's 29 markers this season.

"That line is having success because they're outworking their opponents," North Middlesex second-year head coach Mike McCarthy said. "Physical, smart, unselfish. ... They're everything a coach could want in a group. Last year, they weren't scoring as many goals, but now they're starting to click.

"Instead of winning games 1-0, 2-1, or losing them, we're putting points up on the board.


Hopefully we can clean things up in our own end a little bit and instead of winning 5-4, we can win some games 5-2."

McNamara leads the team with seven goals, adding 10 helpers in his seven games. McCarthy (11 assists) and Miller (8 assists) have each found the back of the net six times.

"We move the puck well out there. We've got a couple grinders and Josh can score for us," McNamara said. "We've played in the past together with success and we just keep putting the puck in the net."

"I expect that to keep going as long as we stay healthy and keep clicking," Ryan McCarthy added. "It's really the forecheck and how we rush the puck in the offensive zone. We've gotten scored on a few times, so we need to do better in our own end, but we've done a good job of getting possession in the offensive and we need to keep that up."

North Middlesex doesn't simply rely on one line for offense. Dupre has three goals and three assists, with his last goal coming in dramatic fashion. The defenseman scored a marker with under four minutes left Wednesday night to pull his side even with Grafton/Blackstone Valley Tech and fellow blueliner Jay Cobleigh netted the winner with just 11 seconds remaining in a 5-4 victory.

"It's good to get the first goal out of the way and it just happened to be a big moment," Cobleigh said. "With our first line doing well, teams are focused on them, so it opens up things for us. We're playing against other teams' top lines, but they give us so much time and space that everyone is getting opportunities."

Sophomore Justin Estrella has been a spark for the Patriots in the offensive zone, tallying five goals this season.

Senior netminder Ryan Twomey and the Patriots' defensive corps have made early leads stand up through much of the season. Mike McCarthy -- a North Middlesex alumnus -- says his netminder is playing with confidence, something Twomey agrees with, courtesy of his team's offensive prowess.

"It definitely helps my confidence. I make it my job to make sure we stay in front," Twomey said. "It's a lot easier for me when they go out there and get a couple goals. Our first line is getting a lot of points and our defense is strong."

Seven games into the season, the Patriots have only been tripped up twice, with both losses coming against a strong Oakmont Regional squad. Those two defeats have sullied the team's conference record, putting it at just 2-2 in Coughlin play.

Things don't get any easier for the Patriots moving forward. They take the ice against a solid Leominster team Saturday afternoon before taking on Northbridge Monday evening. Mike McCarthy says the next couple of weeks will show just how much his team wants to be considered an top-tier program. 

"We've got seven games against either Division 3 or Division 3A playoff teams coming up," Mike McCarthy said. "So if we don't show up, we're going to lose. If we don't show up and hustle and battle, we're going to lose those games."

The coach is particularly eager to play Lunenburg/Ayer-Shirley on Saturday, Jan. 19, to see how the Patriots stack up against an undefeated Blue Knights team.

"We need to keep moving forward. We don't want to be the best worst team (sneaking into the playoffs), we want to be the best best team," he said. "Lunenburg hasn't lost a game and if we don't beat them, we're not sure they will. They're the cream of the crop right now.

"If we show up and play the way we can, we can win any game. But if we show up and think we're going to have an easy night, we're going to lose."

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