WATERVILLE — Colby College head coach Blaise MacDonald spent the preseason praising the talent and depth among his hockey team’s group of forwards. On Friday night, it was the back end that stepped to the front for the Mules.

Defensemen Michael Decker and Thomas Stahlhuth scored as part of a three-goal third-period outburst, and Colby skated to a 4-2 win over rival Bowdoin in a New England Small College Athletic Conference game at Alfond Rink. Stahlhuth scored just past the midway point of the final frame — his first goal of the season — to give the Mules (3-2-0) the lead and ensure that senior netminder Sean Lawrence’s 32-save performance would not got for naught.

“We’re an underrated D-corps,” Stahlhuth said. “We might have a few young guys, but we’ve got a few veterans back there, too, and we got the job done.”

Decker, a senior, handed Colby a 2-1 lead at 4:12 of the third period, converting a nifty play out of the left wing corner with freshman winger Justin Grillo, but the tally only kicked off a seesaw third period.

Dan MacMullan knotted the score for Bowdoin (2-4-0) for a second time less than three minutes after Decker’s goal to set the stage for Stahlhuth.

Stahlhuth collected senior Michael Rudolf’s feed in the high slot and held the puck long enough to allow Polar Bear defenders — dropping to block the shot attempt — to slide clear of his lane. He roofed a wrister that caught crossbar on its way past Bowdoin netminder Alex Zafonte (30 saves).

“I like to fake the shot a lot, and as soon as I saw the guy go down I knew I could walk around him,” Stahlhuth said. “The goalie went down and I put it up top. A goal’s a goal. It’s something I’ll never forget. It was awesome.”

Bowdoin pulled the freshman Zafonte with just over a minute remaining in regulation but could not produce an equalizer. Colby senior Phil Klitirinos potted an empty-netter with 4.8 seconds remaining to seal the win.

“We’ve got such phenomenal forwards, but I think that’s where the danger lies,” MacDonald said of the ability of Colby’s defensemen to contribute offensively. “Those guys are picking up from last year, where (Geoff Sullivan) and (Jack Burton) really did a great job offensively, too. That’s a nice dimension we want to continue to have with our team.”

The two teams meet again on Saturday night at Bowdoin to complete the weekend series.

“I thought the guys came out flying in the third,” Lawrence said. “I couldn’t ask for anything more. It was our best period, by far. Defensively we were great and kept everyone to the outside, and we rebounded right after they tied the game. It was good.

“Every game matters. We need every point. We lost the league by one point last year, so we know every game, even in the beginning of the season, matters just as much as at the end.”

The Mules had to feel unlucky not to have the early lead, after seeing the visitors go ahead 1-0 just over seven minutes into the opening period on Austin Ricci’s goal. Ricci finished off a nice cross-ice, tic-tac-toe play with his linemates from the left circle for his first of the season.

The goal flew in the face of all the early pressure Colby was able to apply, even using its fourth line to hem the Polar Bears top unit in its own zone for one full 40-second shift. Ironically, it wasn’t sustained zone time that allowed Colby to knot the score just past the midway point of the period — instead, it was the Mules’ transition game off a defensive zone faceoff win that ended with sophomore Kienan Scott’s second goal of the season at 10:51.

Grillo nearly put Colby ahead before the first period was out, collecting the puck near the offensive blue line, splitting the Bowdoin defense and forcing Zafonte to make one of his most difficult stops all evening. Grillo hunted down his own rebound and his follow-up chance also called Zafonte into action to keep the game tied.

The feeling that Colby let a first-period chance to control the game slip away only intensified in the second period, as Bowdoin found its energy and its game. The Polar Bears peppered Lawrence with 15 shots and a pair of power plays for the NESCAC’s best man-advantage unit. Lawrence was at his best with 2:15 remaining in the period, turning in the save of the night with a slide clear across the crease on his pads to rob Ricci with his glove at the right post.

“The guys were really buzzing before the couple of penalties we took,” Lawrence. “I was just trying to do what I could to keep the game tied up and give us some momentum.”

On an earlier power play in the period for Bowdoin, the Mules dodged a bullet when McMullan busted off his point to track down a rebound with Lawrence down and out of position in front of him. McMullan’s shot couldn’t find its way through the jungle of traffic at the top of the crease.

Still, the Mules nearly headed into the second intermission with the lead. Grillo found space in the right circle and zipped a wrister ticketed for the the far post — the puck’s clang off the iron drowned out by a grown from the capacity crowd at Alfond.

Despite not being tested quite as often, Zafonte was Lawrence’s equal in the middle stanza. With the puck down low, Grillo spotted sophomore defenseman Robert Cerepak creeping into the high slot unchecked at the 14:00 mark. Zafonte got a piece of Cerepak’s drive to steer it wide and out of harm’s way.

Travis Barrett — 621-5621

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Twitter: @TBarrettGWC