FITCHBURG -- The North Middlesex hockey team has made an improbable run to the division three district playoffs, where they have endured the end of the year grind. The Patriots started the season as a young group trying to get their feet underneath them.
North Middlesex has only three seniors on the roster: Ryan Haluska and the team's two senior captains, Brett Estrella and Will Faulkner. The Patriots are under the tutelage of first-year head coach Michael McCarthy, and they are enjoying great success finishing the season with a regular season mark of 8-8-4. Faulkner admitted that it was a bit different playing under McCarthy than the retired Brendan McNabb.
"Most of my NM career has been with Brendan McNabb. Just being around him is a great experience," said Faulkner. "Our best game this year was Fitchburg; we came back from a two-goal deficit on the powerplay and scored two goals to tie it on the five-on-three and came back to win it."
Faulkner's career began when he was just a tot in the "learn to skate," and then eventually learn to play hockey program in Groton. The then seven-year-old Faulkner quickly developed a bond with the game that he still holds near to his heart.
"I was about seven, and I went to the learn to play hockey program in Groton," said Faulkner. "From there I went to Cyclones, the 495 Stars, and then eventually I was playing for N.M."
Faulkner is the first of his family to play hockey.
Estrella comes from a pedigree of high school hockey players, where he picked up the sport from his father. Just like many budding hockey stars, he had his very own hockey rink in his backyard that his father constructed.
Estrella's skating rink has been put to work by the Patriots' varsity team and has acted as a training ground away from the Wallace Civic Center. The backyard rink is a great place for the Patriots to fine-tune their skills, bond with each other and create a winning team chemistry.
"I started playing hockey in the fourth grade," said Estrella. "Now my brother and I are on the same team, and it's probably one of my favorite years ever. Having a rink in my backyard is awesome. We go out before the games and play. It's fast, and it's just one of those things we always do."
Estrella started his varsity career a bit later than some of his comrades, but his diligent work has paid dividends for the young captain, who plans to try to play club hockey or intramurals at UMass Amherst this coming fall.
"I've played with Brad on the same line every other year," said Faulkner. "This is the first time we were taken apart, and it is working very well. Brett takes the body, he's a hard worker, moves the puck well, and buries his opportunities."
The Patriots' leaders have done them wonders this year, on and off the ice, with their lead-by-example approach. McCarthy feels that the pair has been the difference-maker in the success his team has enjoyed this year.
"As a first-year head coach I couldn't ask for two better captains," said McCarthy. "Their play on the ice speaks for itself. They are two great players. They lead by example and are always positive even if a freshman screws up. "One freshman happens to be Brett's little brother, Justin, and they were on the same line together. It was like papa bear and his little cub. These guys exemplify what we are about."
North Middlesex made their way into the district playoffs on the final day of the regular season, when they recorded a 0-0 draw with Oakmont. The Patriots with the tie, locked up the seventh and final seed of the Division 3A district playoffs. Last Wednesday the team fell to the Grafton/Blackstone Valley Tech Indians 5-3 in what was a thrilling display of playoff hockey.
Faulkner and Estrella were a huge part in getting the Patriots to the playoff stage, and their positive impact on the program will be felt each time the Patriots take the ice.
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