The University of New England men’s hockey team, coming off the best season in program history, will begin a quest Saturday for its first NCAA tournament berth.

UNE (18-4-3, 11-4-3 in the Commonwealth Coast Conference) will host a league quarterfinal against Wentworth (9-13-3, 7-8-3) at 7 p.m. UNE is seeded third in the conference tournament, Wentworth sixth.

The winner of the league playoffs gets an automatic bid to the NCAA Division III tournament.

“This is a very skilled group,” said Coach Kevin Swallow, whose team is ranked No. 7 in the USCHO Division III poll.

Swallow’s arrival to the Biddeford campus in 2015 began the team’s emergence into a winner. The program began in 2007 with two seasons at the pre-varsity level. It jumped into Division III in 2009 and six straight losing seasons followed, losing in the quarterfinals of the conference tournament each year.

In Swallow’s first year, UNE finished 14-10-3, including a quarterfinal win.

Last season the Nor’easters were 15-10-2, coming within one game of reaching the NCAAs. They lost in the conference championship game 5-4 to Endicott, the winning goal coming with 8.7 seconds left.

“We’ve improved every single year,” said junior Brady Fleurent. “We’re more comfortable with each other and we’re playing better team defense.”

Fleurent, like he did last year, leads the nation in points (45) and assists (32).

And yes, it seems like there’s always a Fleurent performing in Biddeford.

His father, Steve, played at UNE (when it was called St. Francis College). Steve Fleurent had three sons play for both Biddeford High and UNE, Tyler graduating in 2013 and Trevor last year.

Saturday will feature a reunion of the Fleurents with Trevor home on break from his professional team in Norway (during the Olympics).

Last year, Trevor and Brady played on the same line with dynamic results. Brady is still shining with linemate Ryan Bloom, a sophomore from Northville, Michigan. Bloom is second in the nation in points (43) and 10th in goals (17).

“He and Trevor play a lot alike,” Brady Fleurent said. “They’re both shooters. I like to pass the puck. We’ve been playing together now for two years and have some really good chemistry.”

The chemistry is coming for the whole team, which is mostly underclassmen (10 freshmen and 10 sophomores, along with four juniors and two seniors).

“They’ve matured a lot, developed a lot,” Swallow said. “The fact that we have a young team, they’re just excited to go out there and play every night.”

UNE began the season 2-3-1, including two losses to Salve Regina, which is ranked No. 5 in the nation and seeded first in the CCC.

From there the Nor’easters went on a 15-game unbeaten streak (14-0-1), beating in-state rivals Bowdoin (twice), Colby (twice) and the University of Southern Maine.

The streak was stopped by a 5-3 loss to Curry on Feb. 2.

During the season, UNE swept Wentworth but the games were close, 6-4 and 6-5.

“They’re a physical team,” Fleurent said. “It’s not going to be easy. It’s playoff hockey and you never know in the playoffs.”

UNE knows about upsets. The Nor’easters were seeded fifth last year before knocking off the Nos. 4 and 2 seeds to reach the final.

Wentworth is coached by Jay Pecora, a former University of Southern Maine assistant and a co-founder of the Portland Junior Pirates.

Swallow also has Maine connections. He began his collegiate career with Dartmouth, then transferred to the University of Maine for two seasons (2008-10). Swallow became a head coach in 2012 at Nichols College. In three seasons, he guided Nichols to two conference titles and two appearances in the NCAA Division III tournament.

His overall six-year record is now 102-44-15.

Swallow has recruited players from across the country, and Canada and England, but there are seven Maine players. Besides Fleurent, the roster features Alden Weller (Falmouth), Jason Harmon (Limington), Ian Rodden (Berwick), Neil Maietta (South Portland), Payton Porter (Houlton) and Samuel Michaud (South Portland).

Kevin Thomas can be reached at 791-6411 or:

[email protected]

Twitter: @KevinThomasPPH

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