FITCHBURG — The North Middlesex hockey team was looking to break into the win column when they hosted always-tough Gardner at the Wallace Civic Center on Satuday afternoon. The Patriots played well in the defensive end and received a strong effort in goal from Drew McLeman, but they failed to complement that production offensively. Gardner goaltender Chase Thornton stopped 19 shots to backstop a 3-0 victory by the Wildcats.
“I’m happy with our play defensively and in goal,” said North Middlesex coach Jeff Prince. “We have a solid corps of defensemen and Drew played well in net. The effort and heart are there; we just need to start putting the puck into the net.”
Gardner stunned the Patriots with a goal just 1:17 into the game when Jeremy Comeau netted a rebound shot from close range, Kyle Peralta and Mike Gaudet assisting.
The Patriots narrowly missed tying the game a minute later. A Gardner defensive giveaway allowed North Middlesexto gain possession and a pass was sent in front to Keegan Ezzio, whose point-blank shot was turned aside by Thornton.
The Wildcats took control of the game, getting the final 10 shots on goal in the period. McLeman stopped nine of them.
Gardner doubled the lead at 10:01 when Christian Comeau skated in from the right corner and slipped a backhander into the net to send Gardner to the first intermission with a 2-0 advantage.
Gardner maintained the momentum to start the second period, and McLeman answered the call 1:45 in when J.R. LaPointe cut in from the left corner and ripped a shot that was stopped at the near post.
North Middlesex came right down the ice and tested Thornton, but he stopped a solid backhander by Steve Chesnell. But less than two minutes later, the Wildcats extended the lead with a power play goal.
LaPointe fired a shot from outside the left post that was denied by McLeman, but he followed up and picked up the rebound, firing a shot under the crossbar to make it 3-0. Christian Comeau and Zack Koren earned assists on the tally.
Through the first 25 minutes of the contest, the North Middlesex offense had been totally stymied, but over the final five minutes of the second period the Patriots started to create some scoring chances. Twice solid spurts around the goal resulted in scrambles in front of the goal, before the puck was finally cleared out of danger.
With 30 seconds remaining in the period a pretty collaboration nearly paid off. Liam McCann threaded a pass to Mike Mahoney, but Thornton stopped his shot from close range. The Patriots had the final six shots on goal in the second period.
Gardner opened the door a little for the Patriots in the third period when they took a series of penalties, including a five-on-three for nearly a minute. North Middlesex defenseman Doug Baird made a strong rush up the ice and fired a wrist shot that was stopped by Thornton.
A minute later, defenseman Tim O’Brien made another strong rush up the ice, but his wrist shot was stopped. He persisted and picked up the rebound, but Thornton came up with another save.
The Patriots pressed to get on the scoreboard and their final quality scoring chance came at 13:30 when Chesnell took a pass from Will Faulkner, but he wrist shot was stopped.
“In the second and third periods we started playing more physically and slowing them down,” said Prince. “We did a good job of not allowing them to score over the second half of the game. We did a good job of carrying the puck offensively, but we need to create better scoring chances. That is something we are working on every day.”
McLeman made 28 saves in the game for the Patriots.