North Middlesex Regional High School hockey head coach Mike McCarthy chats with his team at  Tuesday’s practice in Fitchburg. 						      SENTINEL &
North Middlesex Regional High School hockey head coach Mike McCarthy chats with his team at Tuesday's practice in Fitchburg. SENTINEL & ENTERPRISE/JOHN LOVE

Sentinel and Enterprise staff photos can be ordered by visiting our Smugmug site.

FITCHBURG -- Never underestimate the importance of rock-solid defensemen.

North Middlesex Regional senior netminder Ryan Twomey certainly doesn't.

"The defensemen are the unsung heroes, keeping shots to the outside and not letting the other team walk into our zone very easily," said Twomey after practice on Wednesday at Fitchburg State University's Wallace Civic Center. "They are stepping up, and I'm getting easier shots to save.

"I have full confidence in my defensemen, getting the puck out of the zone, giving good passes to the wingers and shutting down the back door. They definitely help my confidence."

North Middlesex's suffocating defense and the great goaltending of Twomey are two key components that have the Pats one win away from winning the Division 3A state championship.

Central Mass. champion North Middlesex (18-3-2) tangles with Western Mass. champion Wahconah (16-6-1) at 7:30 p.m. Thursday at the MassMutual Center in Springfield for the Division 3A state title.

"We have to take care of our own end first to win any hockey game," North Middlesex coach Mike McCarthy said. "We're good at blocking shots, we're good at keeping things to the side, we're good at making it difficult for other teams to get good, quality scoring chances in good numbers. If we can stick to that ... but Wahconah is an unknown team.

"It should be an exciting atmosphere in a nice, big facility. They'll drop the puck and we'll see what happens."

North Middlesex last appeared in a state final in 2001 -- a 9-0 loss to Hanover in Division 3.


Advertisement

This marks the sixth time North Middlesex hockey will be vying for a state title. The Pats' last state title came in 1998 after a 3-1 victory over Hanover in Division 3. The Pats defeated Coyle-Cassidy, 6-3, for the program's first state in 1995.

Wahconah is making its first-ever appearance in the state final.

While the Pats have the top-end offensive talent to light up the scoreboard, they also feature a tenacious defense that has flustered many opponents during this magical journey.

The Patriots are led by senior defensemen P.J. Dupre, Miles Massidda and Daigan Robichaud, junior Jay Cobleigh and sophomore T.J. Melanson.

"Obviously we've been scoring goals, but the defense is definitely going to be the key in shutting the other team down," Twomey said. "(Wahconah has) a lot of consistency in their lineup, not as many superstars, but consistency."

North Middlesex has allowed two goals in two playoff wins, and have given up only 17 during this impressive 10-game winning streak. On the season, the Pats have allowed more than three goals twice -- a 6-2 loss to Oakmont in the first game of the year and four goals to Grafton in a 5-4 win.

"Our defense and our goaltender, really after the first week of the season we've had one loss in a 3-1 loss with a late goal," McCarthy said. "We've been in every game and we've battled defensively and our goaltender has been phenomenal."

North Middlesex's D-men are talented, tough, versatile and smart. They all compliment each other so well, according to its McCarthy.

The No. 1 defender is Dupre -- an offensive-minded defenseman.

"He's our most skilled player, there's no doubt about it," McCarthy said. "His size is the only thing that limits him, but he plays a physical game, too. He's strong for a small kid. He's as hard to knock off the puck as anyone on our team. His offensive skills are obvious when you watch him play. You don't have to look hard to find the beauty in P.J.'s game."

Dupre is paired with Cobleigh, who McCarthy says has an extremely high hockey IQ.

"He's smart as the game is long," McCarthy said. "Jay's an athlete. He blocks shots, he understands time and space and how to take it away, to give it to them and then take it away. He's a really intelligent defenseman."

Melanson brings the beef to the blue line. He's that prototypical tough, aggressive defensemen that feeds off the physical contact.

"T.J. is our brute, strongest defenseman," McCarthy said. "And probably straight on, he's probably our fastest defenseman. He has great recovery speed if he gets beat. He makes it difficult every night for other teams to get quality chances, and when they do he makes them pay the price because he's a big, physical kid."

Massidda and Robichaud are in the same mold of a player, according to the NM head coach.

"They are very similar in that they're both seniors, they have good size and speed," McCarthy said. "They are just solid. They don't have bottom end, they don't have top end skill sets, but they're right down the middle."

During this recent red-hot winning streak, North Middlesex has one shutout, while yielding only one goal in three games and two goals in four games.

"I'd say about halfway through the year we really started to click," said Dupre.

Robichaud, who has been recovering from a lower body injury, also admits the defense has really been meshing as one cohesive unit.

"It's just clicking with us," he said. "We're all figuring out what our strengths are and we're using it to our advantage."

Twomey has also found the groove in between the pipes.

"The consistency of Twomey helps," Dupre said. "We're about 100 percent confident in him."

And Twomey has all the trust in the world in all the defensemen playing in front of him. It's easy to be confident, too, especially when the defenders constantly force the opposition to shoot from the outside and then Twomey easily gobbles up those low-percentage shots.

"We know (Twomey) can save shots from the outside," Robichaud said. "We really stress pushing them to the outside, sticks in the middle and not letting them get that middle shot. Other than that, they're not going to score."

Twomey struggled early in December with his mechanics, he says, but those flaws are a distant memory now.

"Recently, I've been seeing the puck a lot better," Twomey said.

He's playing the game now with tunnel vision. Is he in the zone?

"I feel like right now I am," Twomey said. "I can't explain it, but I just have confidence in my ability right now."

Confidence is oozing everywhere inside the Patriots locker room.

"We're probably the most confident that we've been all season," Twomey said. "Since that Groton game (a 3-2 road win on Military Night), it's been the most confidence I've ever had in the four years I've been here."

Follow Chad Garner on Twitter and Tout @CGARNER23