FITCHBURG -- In the decade or so history of the Division 3A format, the Lunenburg/Ayer-Shirley and North Middlesex Regional hockey teams have not played in the Central Mass. 3A title game.
Today will be the first time for both.
North Middlesex enters the championship tilt as the top seed, but second-seeded Lunenburg won the regular season series. If the first two meetings were any indication of how Monday's title battle will play out, this championship could go down as the best local high school game of the year.
Faceoff gets under way at 6 p.m. at Fitchburg State University's Wallace Civic Center, the home rink for both squads.
"I expect nothing less than a battle," North Middlesex head coach Mike McCarthy said.
North Middlesex (17-3-2) held a two-goal advantage in the first meeting on Jan. 18, but Lunenburg (16-2-4) forced a 3-3 tie with a goal with under three minutes to play. It was a one-goal game until the final minute in the second meeting Jan. 25, where the Blue Knights prevailed, 3-1.
The Patriots controlled momentum at the beginning of the first contest, Lunenburg took control to start the second meeting, and both coaches feel the team that sets the tone early could end up winning.
"They were both really good games, and evenly matched," Lunenburg head coach Eric Short said. "On our end, we've got to put forth a three-period effort. The game we won, we played all three periods, and came out in the first period really well. The game we tied, we were flat for the first two periods, and they outplayed us. We've got to play strong all three periods, and can't let them take puck possession or get the better of us in our defensive zone."
Senior captain Tom Wagner paces the Lunenburg offense.
"We have seven seniors who are key to our top 11 kids," Short said. "Wagner was a leader in Central Mass this year, and stepped up in some big games. He's going to be a key Monday night, and can take over a game with his play and on the scoreboard. We're hoping that can happen."
The Patriots also boast a potent first line of Danny McNamara, Ryan McCarthy, and Josh Miller, who are all upperclassmen and near the top of the Division 3A scoring rankings.
North Middlesex hopes to limit the scoring chances presented by Lunenburg's top line, but more importantly want to maintain their style of play. The Patriots and Blue Knights play contrasting styles, which have different advantages against mutual opponents. However, recent history shows when the two match up it is more of a stalemate.
"Whenever we face each other it is a really tight battle," Mike McCarthy said. "If depth is an advantage, we play more players than they play; if we have to shorten our bench they have the advantage. Most of our success comes from getting pucks deep in the zone, and attacking the net from the side wall or behind the net. Their goals come from rushes."
The battle between the pipes may determine which team hoists the hardware. Lunenburg boasts senior Alec McNamara, who led Central Mass. in every significant goalie statistical category during the regular season, including goals against average (1.21) and save percentage (.934).
Just as effective is Patriots' senior goalie Ryan Twomey, who boasts a goals against average this season around 2.00.
"The winner of the game is probably going to have the best goalie on the ice," Mike McCarthy said. "I coached Alec McNamara in the past through select youth hockey. He's a fantastic goaltender. He's a great competitor and had an unbelievable season.
"Twomey has been the backbone for us. He has some strengths in his game, being able to play the puck and go behind the net. (Twomey) is fantastic, and when he's on his game, he is very, very outstanding. We expect both goalies to be on their game and have a great battle."