FITCHBURG — Now is exactly the time for the Fitchburg/Monty Tech ice hockey team to step up and play its best hockey of the season.
It’s playoff time. Win and advance or lose and go home.
The sixth-seeded Red Raiders certainly aren’t looking ahead to any other opponent, however, and are completely locked in on talented and No. 3 seed Grafton in a Central Mass. Division 3A quarterfinal battle at 6 p.m. on Wednesday night at Buffone Arena on Lake Ave. in Worcester.
“I imagine they will get our best effort for sure -- a disciplined game where we make an effort to take better care of the puck, offensively and defensively,” said Fitchburg/Monty Tech longtime coach Steve Lowney.
And he knows Grafton (11-7-2) is a lethal opponent with talent up and down the lineup.
“Grafton is arguably the division’s most complete team,” said Lowney, despite Northbridge (19-1-0) and Hopedale (10-5-5) as the top two seeds in the tourney. “They possess size, skill and depth at forward and defense. They can roll out three forward lines with speed and skill, and have arguably the best ‘D' corps and goaltending we’ve faced all year.”
Fitchburg (8-8-4) shouldn’t be overwhelmed with Grafton’s talent, especially since the two teams played to a 0-0 draw on Jan. 8 at Buffone Arena. In that game, Fitchburg goalie Spencer McCrillis made a whopping 25 saves, while Grafton netminder Reed Henson stopped 11.
“The 0-0 tie was one of those games where collectively our group really rose to the challenge,” recalled Lowney. “We stayed out of the box and played smart, disciplined hockey.”
Fitchburg enters the tournament on a two-game losing streak to Shawsheen and Lunenburg and is 2-6-1 in its last 9 games.
“No question we have had some important games slip away, some big games that we just have not played well enough to win,” Lowney said. “The best way to turn it around is to simplify our game, particularly on offense. We’ve talked about taking the defense wide and getting the puck deep, getting help and playing for possession. That's when we've been at our best and it’s something we just have not been doing really at all.
“Our goal totals are way down from most years as a direct result. We really struggle to score because we are consistently taking pucks to the middle and playing a finesse game. This is low-percentage hockey and we’re struggling because of it.”
Grafton also enters the tourney fresh off a 4-2 loss to Northbridge, while going 1-3 in its last four games.
Both offenses are fueled by go-to players in Fitchburg sniper Max Beaulac (16 goals, 15 assists, 31 points) and Grafton’s Deron Breen (12-19-31). They are both in the top-10 in scoring in Central Mass.
Cam Bern checks in with 9 goals and 14 assists to provide additional scoring punch for Grafton, while Fitchburg counters with Jace Salame (6-11-17), Anthony Lesperance (7-9-16) and six-goal scoring from Ryan Johnson and freshman Riley LeBlanc. Liam Hickey has 4 goals and 7 assists to provide more scoring pop for the Red Raiders.
Fitchburg’s goaltending situation is in excellent hands with either of Lowney’s choices to start in the playoffs with Garrett Johnson or McCrillis.
Here are Lowney’s keys to success: “All five players defending -- forwards back-checking and helping ‘D' zone is critical.”
The Fitchburg/Grafton winner faces the winner of (2) Hopedale/(7) Oakmont in a semifinal at the Wallace Civic Center at a time and date to be determined.
(Story by FPS Communications Coordinator Chad Garner)