The Woburn girls’ hockey team has become synonymous with winning in the Middlesex League. The Tanners have deservedly been in the spotlight, taking the last three league titles and making regular appearances in the state tournament.
But this season, a Middlesex underdog has shown the right combination of unique talent and ambition — Reading.
Rockets coach Michael Golden has overseen the turnaround from a “middle-to-bottom-of-the-pack” squad when he started five years ago to a true contender, unbeaten in league play at 9-0.
Coming off a 14-5-2 season, Golden said the Rockets “came into this year ambitious and set lofty goals to compete for the Middlesex title and do better in the state tournament.”
It would appear the second-ranked Rockets are closing in on their first goal. Reading avenged last season’s first-round tournament loss to Acton-Boxboro by beating the Colonials, 2-1, this month. But there was another win that was even sweeter.
Woburn rallied to beat Reading, 4-3, in a league-deciding matchup last season. Two weeks ago, Reading blanked the Tanners, 3-0.
“In the stands, [last season’s loss] was viewed as devastating, but it was OK because we pushed a very good game to the brink and we came up short, but now we knew we could play with them,” said Golden.
“It helped us a lot this year knowing if we played good hockey that we had a viable chance to win. We just had to get over that hump.”
The Rockets are in position to win their first Middlesex crown since the 2006-07 season, according to Golden.
“[The win over Woburn] gave us a lot of confidence and everyone played as a team for our biggest win and now we continue on to play well,” said team scoring leader Ali O’Leary (15 goals, 11 assists).
“I’m pretty confident that we can win [the league] this year, it’s a big step for our program.”
Kayla St. Pierre, who was inactive early in the season because of a concussion, earned the shutout in net. O’Leary, Tori Grimmer, and Caroline Seibold also have been catalysts during Reading’s 10-1-2 start.
“[O’Leary and Grimmer] do some special things together. They have this sixth sense where they know where each other is on the ice. They’re our linchpins on offense,” said Golden.
Said O’Leary, “I started playing with Tori on a select team last year that helped a lot and in offseason in the summer and we’ve been playing well and we know how each other plays.”
The Rockets’ only loss this season came against St. Mary’s, 4-3.
“We played an excellent game, dominated puck possession and shots on goal and quality chances but not on the scoreboard,” said Golden. “We lost, but we learned there are different ways to win and different ways to lose so that you’ve got to be very careful with the puck in dangerous areas.”
Golden knows a loss could give Woburn or Lexington a chance at the league title. But he’s also confident in his team’s depth, which he says is unlike other teams’.
“I play three lines, four defensemen, and a senior backup goalie. Depth is a huge factor. Some of these other teams are playing 10 or nine kids and we try to wear them out with fresher bodies on the ice. It’s a great leveling agent as the game goes on,” Golden said.
The Rockets have five straight league games ahead, starting with Stoneham on Wednesday.
“The kids are energized and believe not only can we compete but we can compete in the Middlesex and statewide. We’ve got a real chance to be competitive with everybody,” said Golden.
Golden, a former hockey player at Reading, sees a bright future for the girls’ program.
“We have 16 coming back and a lot of hopeful talent at the middle schools,” he said. “This is the beginning of a trend where we’re a very competitive team for the next six or seven years.”
Golden said that watching the squad’s turnaround has been very rewarding.
“I tell them they can be part of something that continues on long after they graduate. It’s nice to see something you were a part of become successful,” he Golden.
“It’s very rewarding for the girls to do something in this pocket of time to spark interest in youth hockey, to inspire kids to be part of something successful.”
Games of the week
No. 7 Beverly/Danvers at No. 1 Duxbury, Monday, 3:40 p.m. — The Beverly/Danvers co-op (10-1) encountered its only loss to Andover, 4-3, on Jan. 20 after a nine-game win streak. It will need better goaltending against an unbeaten Duxbury squad (8-0-2) whose goalie, Rachel Myette, posts a 0.41 goals-against average.
No. 13 Winthrop/Lynn at No. 7 Beverly/Danvers, Wednesday, 8 p.m. — This Northeastern League (North) matchup features two co-op teams tied in the league standings at 2-0. Beverly/Danvers (10-1) has scored 72 goals, and its biggest offensive threats are Nicole Woods (16 goals, 29 assists), Kristen McCarthy (13-26), and Julia Nearis (31-18). This trio is sure to put pressure on freshman Gretchen Howard, who has a 1.67 GAA for Winthrop/Lynn (10-2).
No. 3 Arlington Catholic at No. 15 Archbishop Williams, Wednesday, 8 p.m. — If Arlington Catholic (9-2-1) is going to win its first Catholic Central League title, it will need to take care of business in its next two league games. In their first matchup with Archbishop Williams, the Cougars rallied from 2-0 down to win, 4-2.
No. 3 Arlington Catholic at No. 5 Austin Prep, Saturday, 4 p.m. — The Cougars have back-to-back matchups with Austin Prep (8-1-1) and St. Mary’s. Austin Prep sophomore goalie Caty Flagg has a 0.71 GAA, allowing only five goals this season.
No. 9 St. Mary’s at No. 11 Westwood, Saturday, 8 p.m. — The Spartans (7-4-2) hit a midseason slump with back-to-back losses against CCL contender Arlington Catholic, 3-0, and the Beverly/Danvers co-op, 3-2. Westwood has yet to lose this season (but with four ties). Its leading scorer is Kim Egizi with eight goals and nine assists.Liz Torres can be reached at Elizabeth.Torres@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @etorres446.