The Colby College hockey team will make its first-ever NCAA tournament appearance close to home.
The Mules will face No. 4 University of New England in the first round of the Division III national championship tournament Saturday at the Harold Alfond Forum in Biddeford. The game is scheduled for 7 p.m.
Colby (15-10-2) earned its berth in the 12-team tournament by winning the New England Small College Athletic Conference championship Sunday with a 4-1 win over top-seeded Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut. Trinity, the NESCAC regular season champion and 2015 national champion, did not earn an at-large bid.
“We started off hot this year, went through a little bit of a down period, and then got it going at right time,” said Colby senior goal Sean Lawrence, who made 38 saves in the NESCAC title game. “We finished (the regular season) two points away from second place. It was really tight throughout the league. When we beat Trinity with a couple weeks left in the regular season, we knew we could beat any team. We just kept at it.”
Colby enters the week on a seven-game unbeaten streak (5-0-2), including four straight wins.
Saturday’s first-round winner will advance to the national quarterfinals against either No. 5 SUNY-Geneseo or No. 8 Hobart College.
“It’s definitely special,” Colby senior defenseman Dan Dupont said. “We talk a lot about our history. Some of the stuff we do is so ingrained in our past. Long before the Class of 2018 (past classes) instilled habits of a work ethic that we’re still part of. We’re grateful for them. We get the ring, which is awesome, but they played a pretty huge part in this.”
“Our team is best right now in terms of its mindset,” Colby head coach Blaise MacDonald added. “We have really strong outlook on how to prepare and get ready for a game, how to prepare during the a week and get ready for game. I think that comes from our core of veterans and great leadership.”
Lawrence has been at the forefront of that senior core, particularly in the postseason with three consecutive performances of 30-plus saves in Colby’s run to the conference championship to back a 2.06 goals against average this season and .940 save percentage in 23 starts.
In addition to what Lawrence has done, defenseman Michael Decker was named to the All-NESCAC team, and Cam MacDonald — son of head coach Blaise MacDonald — leads the team with 15 goals. Phil Klitirinos has a team-leading 26 points (8-18-26) in 27 games this season.
UNE (20-5-3) is also making its first NCAA tournament appearance in program history. The Nor’easters, who are coached by former University of Maine forward Kevin Swallow, lost to Nichols College in the Commonwealth Coast Conference championship game Sunday to snap a five-game unbeaten run (4-0-1). During the regular season, UNE twice beat Colby in a 14-day span in early January.
The Nor’easters offensive statistics are jaw-dropping. Their 4.96 goals per game as a team ranks second in the nation, powered by a power play which has cashed in at 35.9 percent — the only team in the country to produce power play goals at more than 30 percent effectiveness.
Senior center Brady Fleurent (16-34-50) is one of just to players in Division III this season to hit the 50-point plateau.
“They’re definitely explosive offensively, particularly three or four players that kind of stand out to me,” senior defenseman Dan Dupont said. “We think we’re capable of focusing in on certain habits and players. If we do that, we feel like they can be vulnerable to counter-attack.
“Ideally, we want to spend as much time as we can in the offensive zone and really smother them and quickly exit when they’re in our zone.”
“The nice thing is we just played two good teams from our league that are very dynamic offensively,” Blaise MacDonald said. “Wesleyan was one of the more creative offensive teams we’ve played. Trinity has tremendous offensive weaponry. When you get to this time of yer, everybody’s very, very good. Now we just need to heighten our puck management and our managing of the game in general.”
With Colby and UNE having played twice, once in Biddeford and once in Waterville, there’s familiarity with both the opponent — and the atmosphere — the Mules will face in the NCAA Tournament.
“This time of year, if we didn’t know the opponent, then we’d focus on us,” Blaise MacDonald said. “Knowing the building, knowing a lot of people will come out and support us, we know it’s going to be a great atmosphere.
“It’s an awesome thing to get excited about at this time of year.”
Colby College’s Cam MacDonald (14) eyes the airborne puck as he battles with Amherst College’s Patrick Daly (24) at Colby College in Waterville on Saturday, Jan. 6, 2018. (Morning Sentinel photo by Michael G. Seamans/Staff Photographer)