FITCHBURG -- At times during the season, North Middlesex may have thought that an imaginary brick wall was moved in front of their goal at the start of each period. But the Patriots' troubles finding the back of the net were resolved when they opened the first period with five unanswered goals and All-star forward Danny McNamara tallied a hat-trick to lead the Pats past Nashoba Valley Tech 9-3 inside the Wallace Civic Center.
"It is always nice when you can get multiple goals," said North Middlesex head coach Mike McCarthy. "Danny as a freshman won our heart award. I call him the Energizer bunny. Danny can get hit, knocked down, and still win the battle. He has a constant motor, and is someone that anyone can look up to about the effort needed to play this game and be successful."
The win means more than a notch in a territorial rivalry; it means the Pats still have a shot at clinching a berth in the district playoffs. North Middlesex needs at least one win and two draws in their remaining three games to squeak into the district playoff picture.
The Patriots scored on the power play just 1:51 into the game when P.J. Dupre made good on a tape-to-tape feed from line-mate Brett Estrella and flicked it on goal from the point to make it 1-0. Three minutes later, sophomore wing Josh Miller got in on the scoring party with a tip-in at 4:51 of the period. Miller skated in front of the crease and tipped the puck through traffic past freshman goalie Ryan Leedham with the assists credited to Estrella and T.J. Melanson.
Less than a minute later, North Middlesex controlled the face-off and Tyler Riel sweeped the biscuit by Leedham from the blue line to push the Pats' lead to 3-0. McNamara would score the next two Patriots goals in the opening frame at 9:06 and 12:56.
McNamara's second goal came on the breakaway out of the Vikings' zone, and a brilliant feed from Estrella left McNamara open for the wrister glove side.
At the first intermission, North Middlesex held an impressive 5-0 advantage, but in the second Nashoba Valley came out and punched the Pats in the mouth. North Middlesex was outscored in the second period 2-1 by the Vikings, after Pats' forward Daigan Robichaud lifted one off the chest of Leedham (35 saves) and in at 4:47 of the second.
Nashoba Valley junior forward David Marchessault scored off a redirected Nate Baldinelli slapper cannoned in from the blue line to make it 6-1. Marchsessault and Baldinelli would connect again late in the period. A host of Vikings stormed the crease, and Ryan Twomey was unable to stymie the tip-in from Marchessault, bringing the game within four, 6-2.
McNamara collected the garbage on the left side of the goal after an Estrella shot and put it in to cap off the hat trick and give the Pats a 7-2 lead at 5:05 of the third period. Less than a minute later, Nashoba Valley senior Nate Medlin flicked the puck past a diving Twomey (14 saves) to make it 7-3. North Middlesex tacked on two more at the end of the period. Miller skated in and nonchalantly lifted the puck top shelf at 11:13 of the period for his second goal of the game. Devon Blanchard tacked on another goal late in the period off a Melanson pass.
North Middlesex outshot the Vikings 45-17 in the win, and Estrella led the Patriots with five assists. Melanson and Miller each had two. North Middlesex has had little time to reflect on games at this point in the season, and with little rest they continue to roll.
"The nice thing is we have been playing playoff hockey for about two weeks now," said McCarthy. "We will be playing playoff hockey for three weeks straight. When we get in, we will be battle tested."
At the time of publication, North Middlesex needed just one win and a tie to qualify for the district tournament.
The Patriots played to a 2-2 draw with Leominster making Friday's match against Oakmont crucial.