WATERVILLE — By the time Joe Welch scored to pull visiting Williams College to within a goal with under five minutes remaining on Saturday afternoon, it felt like Colby’s emphatic start had been long forgotten.

But a funny thing happened for a Mules team that had lost four straight — and six out of seven overall in January entering the meeting with the Ephs — something that might be the spark the team needed if it is, indeed, to challenge for a conference title this winter. Colby buckled down in the key areas, won a pair of big faceoffs in the final minute and a half of regulation and held on for a 4-2 win over Williams in a New England Small College Athletic Conference matinee at Alfond Rink.

“We’ve been cold lately, and we haven’t gotten the bounces,” junior center Nick O’Connor said. “We know we’re a great team and have a lot to offer. It was just a matter of sticking with the process and coming out fast.”

Fueled by a loss Friday night to Middlebury, the Mules (8-8-0 overall, 7-5-0 NESCAC) put together their best period of 2018 in the first 20 minutes Saturday. Kienan Scott opened the scoring on the power play at 7:04, and fourth-liner Zack Hale redirected Andrew Reis’ drive from the left point for a 2-0 Colby lead at 12:48.

“Right off the puck drop you want to start off with a good shift and keep passing along good shifts,” said senior captain Michael Rudolf, who collected a pair of assists. “We got that going, and it was a point of emphasis getting the first goal, getting up on the bench and having a lot of energy. Other nights, we might have been flat. I’m really happy with the guys and the way we started off the game.”

The Mules were not yet done. With Williams (10-6-0, 6-4-0) applying pressure late, J.P. Schuhlen cashed in on the counter with less than 15 seconds remaining in the period, after defenseman Dan Dupont had forced a turnover by jumping into the play along the left wing boards to keep the puck in the Ephs zone.

Colby was hard on the puck, created turnovers in all three zones, forced the Ephs into a number of offensive zone penalties and won 41 of 62 faceoffs on the day.

“Those were our focal points,” Colby coach Blaise MacDonald said. “That tells you a lot about a team, when your stick’s on the puck first and you’re winning it. On faceoffs… are you on your toes and reacting? You can really tell when your team’s on. Those are all really good trends and tendencies toward good hockey.”

Colby’s second period wasn’t nearly as good as its first, but the Mules were able to hold Williams at bay thanks to senior goalie Sean Lawrence. Lawrence made 15 of his 35 saves in the middle stanza, though the Ephs did get on the board with Nick VanBelle’s goal at 17:57.

It would have been quite easy for the Mules to, right then and there, start playing tentatively and allow Williams to carry all the momentum into the third.

Instead, the Mules picked up where the first period had left off. Were it not for a timely save from Williams’ Michael Pinios on Thomas Stahlhuth at 5:29 or Cam MacDonald just missing at the back post midway through the period, the Mules would have had a three- or four-goal cushion to play with down the stretch.

Williams, though, tightened things considerably when Welch made it a 3-2 game at 15:09. Credit to Colby for not folding up the tent, even with the kind of disaster they’ve faced this month. O’Connor’s line followed the Welch goal with one of its best shifts of the night, and Rudolf won two faceoffs in the final 1:13 — with the Ephs net empty in favor of an extra attacker — to help hold Williams off.

“When you have a three-goal lead, you tend to relax,” Rudolf said. “We kept going and never stopped playing in the offensive zone. In previous games, if they’d score two in a row we might have gotten down on ourselves. Today, we turned it around and had the mental toughness to keep it up and not worry about it.”

MacDonald scored into an empty-net from near center ice with 41.1 seconds showing on the clock to ice Colby’s first win since beating Amherst two weeks ago at Alfond.

“We’ve been moving in the right direction, albeit with smaller steps,” Coach MacDonald said. “We had some amazing chances and could have scored upward of eight or nine goals. So, the fact that we’re creating those opportunities is a real credit to the guys sticking with it.”

Travis Barrett — 621-5621

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Twitter: @TBarrettGWC