WATERVILLE — The quest for a second consecutive season with a home playoff date took a small step in the right direction for the Mules on Sunday afternoon.

The Colby College men’s hockey team exploded for three early third-period goals, erasing a three-goal deficit and forcing a 3-3 tie with Wesleyan University in a crucial late-season New England Small College Athletic Conference game at Alfond Rink. On the heels of shutting out league-leading Trinity, the No. 5 team in the nation, on Saturday night, the tie gave the Mules three out of a possible four points against two of the top three teams in the league entering the weekend.

Freshman winger Justin Grillo scored twice for Colby (11-10-2), while sophomore J.P. Schuhlen also scored. Senior defenseman Michael Decker assisted on both of Grillo’s strikes, and senior goalie Sean Lawrence made 33 saves — rebounding from a pair of fluky goals against — to hold Colby in it.

Tyler Kobryn, Cam McCusker and Walker Harris scored the goals for Wesleyan (11-6-6), which is working to keep pace with the NESCAC’s frontrunners. Sophomore goalie Tim Sestak stopped 49 shots to preserve the tie.

TURNING POINT: Down 3-0 at home and on the verge of losing any hope of hosting a NESCAC quarterfinal in two weeks, Colby found an extra gear and scored three times in a span of 3:49 very early in the third period to tie the game.

“It’s a crazy feeling. Everything escapes your body for a second — all the fatigue and everything,” Grillo said of the feeling of the game’s momentum changing so suddenly. “It started right in the tunnel. All of us were hyped to get back out there. We knew that if we got one, the second and third ones would come.”

Grillo’s first came just 40 seconds after the teams returned to the ice following the second intermission, with Schuhlen netting his fifth of the season only 32 seconds later. Grillo’s fifth of the year came at the 4:29 mark of the third to tie things at 3-3, prompting Wesleyan to call a timeout.

“Grillo got us going,” Colby coach Blaise MacDonald said. “He’s got great speed and real ‘gameness’ to him. I thought that line got better every shift with Cam (MacDonald) and (Michael Rudolf).”

“We know what we’re capable of,” Colby senior defenseman Dan Dupont said. “Sometimes you’ve just got to get in the locker room and believe it. We believe it — we’re so talented. We have so many unbelievable players. We knew it was going to come.”

Once the game was tied, neither team could secure a would-be winner. Wesleyan coach Chris Potter credited his team for rebounding after a timeout following Grillo’s tying goal.

“The way that was going, we showed some mental toughness and kind of drew a line in the sand,” Potter said. “It could easily have kept going the other way the way (Colby) was playing.”

GETTING TO THE NET: Sestak stopped all 31 shots he faced through the first two periods Sunday, but Colby took a more urgent approach to the third to generate goals. Where they’d been unable to pounce on second-chance opportunities in the first two periods, the Mules found themselves crashing the net to try and break through.

Grillo’s two goals each came from the bottom of the right circle, where he was able to follow up plays and snap wristers under the crossbar for goals.

“Those bounces don’t come unless you’re tenacious,” Grillo said. “The bounces came our way. We’d been waiting for them all game and we knew they’d come, so it ended up working out.”

Schuhlen, similarly, got to a second-chance opportunity to bank a rebound off the skate of Wesleyan’s Harris down low.

“That was our focus,” Coach MacDonald said. “We had plenty of chances in the second, but we had nobody in front of the goalie. That was our No. 1 priority when we talked to the team, and the players executed.”

DISAPPEARING ACT: For the second time in as many nights, Wesleyan squandered a two-goal first-period lead and a lead early in the third. The Cardinals were upset by Bowdoin on Saturday night in a 4-3 loss.

“(Saturday) night was a completely different game,” Wesleyan coach Chris Potter said. “This is always a very tough trip. I always tell the guys, ‘If you want home ice, you’ve got to be able to get off the bus and win a game.’ If you can do that on the road, you’ve got a good chance at home ice. We were able to salvage a point.”

CRUNCH TIME: Hamilton and Wesleyan are tied for the fourth and final home NESCAC playoff spot with 18 points, while Colby is one point behind in sixth with 17 points.

While the Mules have road games against third-place Connecticut College and ninth-place Tufts, Wesleyan has a home-and-home with league leader Trinity.

“When you put it all into a weekend, (Saturday) was such a big win — especially shutting out a team that hasn’t been shut out for five years in our conference — we expended a lot of emotional energy as well as physical energy,” MacDonald said. “Overall, I give the guys a lot of credit. It’s easy to feel sorry for yourself and have a pity party being down 3-0, but they came out with a strong determination to give it their best shot.”

Travis Barrett — 621-5621

[email protected]

Twitter: @TBarrettGWC