By Chad Garner
FITCHBURG -- There's certainly no quit in the North Middlesex Regional ice hockey team.
The top-seeded Patriots were down twice in the third period Feb. 27, but never out.
They kept believing and working, and the huge home crowd was rewarded with late third-period goals by Justin Estrella and Danny McNamara within a 35-second span. The Patriots avoided an upset with a thrilling 4-3 victory over No. 8 Northbridge in a Central Mass Division 3A quarterfinal last Thursday night at Fitchburg State University's Wallace Civic Center.
"All the seniors in there, we didn't want our season to end, so it was huge," said senior captain McNamara, who potted the game-winning goal at 13:43 of the third period. "It was good that we could keep it going, and I feel we have a lot of momentum going into the next round."
North Middlesex (16-3-2), winners of eight straight games, will play the Oakmont-Nashoba winner on Wednesday at a time and location to be determined.
"I told them that I couldn't be more proud of a team that never quits, never gets down, doesn't yell or curse or get frustrated to the point where they don't continue to play their game," North Middlesex coach Mike McCarthy said.
This is the third straight season the Pats have been in the playoffs, but the first time they've had a postseason win since 2006.
"It's a big win," McNamara said. "It's good to not get knocked out in the first round.
Controversy struck 5:01 into the third period. Josh Miller appeared to score from the near post and the Patriots began to celebrate. But the action on the ice continued until the next whistle, when McCarthy asked the referee to confer with the goal judge to see if the puck did in fact go into the net.
The referees briefly consulted with the goal judge, and it was determined that Miller's shot did go in before popping back out. Ryan McCarthy and McNamara each picked up helpers on the game-tying tally.
"Once we got one in we sort of got the ball rolling," McNamara said. "We had more confidence that we could put the puck in the net."
Northbridge, however, regained the lead 3-2 on Mike Ferrraro's second goal of the evening at 12:33.
But the Pats never got down. Instead, they fought harder and answered at 13:08 to knot the game at 3-all on Estrella's huge goal.
North Middlesex wasn't satisfied, and completed the amazing late-game comeback when PJ Dupre found McNamara, who blasted a shot into the top corner of the net at 13:43 for the eventual game-winner.
"The puck was in the air coming over the blue line, and I just tried to knock it down to myself," McNamara said. "It was bobbling, so I just tried to get a quick shot off and it went in.
"I got all that I wanted on it, and it sort of fluttered its way in into the top corner. It was good," he said.
The Rams had a key chance to tie the game with under a minute left, but a shot hit off the crossbar to keep the Pats up a goal.
North Middlesex, which salvaged a 3-3 draw against Northbridge on Jan. 13, completely dominated the middle period, outshooting the visitors 14-5, but trailed by one goal, 2-1, after 30 minutes of play.
Northbridge came out of the locker room flying and immediately regained its lead 33 seconds in.
Ferraro turned on the jets, splitting two Patriot defenders, before firing a pinpoint shot to the short side of the net that eluded North Middlesex goalie Ryan Twomey for an unassisted goal.
Trailing 2-1, the Patriots played solid defense to bottle up the Rams' forwards, while the offense started clicking, too. But each and every time the Pats had a quality scoring chance, Rams goalie Kirby Gomez was up the challenge.
North Middlesex's Brendan Barry, Jay Cobleigh, McNamara, Matt McCarthy and Miller all had key shots on net, but Gomez wouldn't budge.
On a North Middlesex power play late, Miller ripped a shot through a screen that Gomez got his pad on, and moments later Gomez used his face mask to rob Miller again.
North Middlesex outshot Northbridge, 14-5, in the second period.
Northbridge struck first only 1:37 into the game, as Dominik Chlebovec snuck by the North Middlesex defense on the left wing to beat Twomey.
Twomey, however, kept his team right in it, twice robbing Ferraro on the doorstep and turning away Chlebovec's wrist shot from the slot.
The end of the game was an ugly scene. Garbage was sprawled across the ice after a trash barrel from the visitors' side of the stands was thrown onto the ice surface. For results of the semifinal, visitNashobapublishing.com/sports