WATERVILLE — When the NCAA announced the participants in its Division III national hockey tournament via a webcast Monday morning, the Colby College and University of New England teams had very different reactions.

For Colby, it was the validation of a program first. A win in the New England Small College Athletic Conference championship game assured the Mules one of seven berths in the 12-team bracket reserved for conference champions.

For UNE, it was relief. After spending nine consecutive weeks ranked inside the nation’s Top 15 — climbing as high as No. 4 — the Nor’easters lost to Nichols in the Commonwealth Coast Conference championship and needed one of only five at-large bids to qualify for the program’s first NCAA appearance.

“It’s been a roller-coaster of a week for us,” UNE coach Kevin Swallow said. “We got beat up on pretty good by a good Nichols team, and we were down and depressed for a couple of days. Going into Monday and not knowing what to expect from the NCAA committee, and then ultimately getting the bid, was super-exciting.”

If the seventh-ranked Nor’easters (20-5-3) have proven anything this season, it’s that they have the firepower to rebound. Leading the nation in total goals (139), UNE scored six or more goals 13 times this season. Only once this season did the Nor’easters lose back-to-back games.

“I think we’re very deep,” said Swallow, who played at the University of Maine. “That’s one of our strengths. A lot of guys know their roles and accept their roles. We have a lot of guys who can put the puck in the net and create offense, and that’s obviously a good thing to have.”

Five different players have scored 10 or more goals this season for UNE, led by freshman Tyler Seltenreich’s 19. Junior and Biddeford native Brady Fleurent is one of only two 50-point scorers in the nation this season with 16-34-50 totals.

Twice UNE played Colby during the regular season, beating the Mules 5-3 and 5-1 in non-conference games in early January. Those losses came during a stretch in which the Mules lost six out of seven games.

Colby (15-10-2) is a much different team than the one the Nor’easters handled with ease. The Mules are unbeaten in their last seven (5-0-2), having knocked off nationally-ranked Trinity twice during that stretch. After allowing 27 goals over a seven-game stretch in January which included the UNE losses, Colby has allowed just 22 goals in the 12 games since (8-2-2).

Senior netminder Sean Lawrence — who didn’t play in either UNE game this season — made 113 saves over the course of three NESCAC playoff games and carries a 1.12 goals against average over his last seven starts.

“(UNE has) been one of the best teams all year,” Lawrence said. “Even watching those two games that we played against them, they’re extremely talented offensively. But I’m happy with where our team’s at. We block a lot of shots, so I think it will be a good matchup there. Hopefully, we can put a couple of pucks in the back of the net, too.”

If the Nor’easters place emphasis on being an offensive juggernaut, the Mules focus on what they’re doing in their own end.

“The scoring goals part and the goaltending part of things — both can come in waves,” Colby senior defenseman Dan Dupont said. “Sometimes goal scorers just aren’t scoring, and that’s OK. The important thing is when you’re in that drought (like in January) — what we did, we stuck with our same process and trusted that process. We knew eventually our goal-scorers will score and our goalie will be a brick wall.

“It took some real mental endurance. Right around the turn into February, things started to click. By March it as like, ‘What the heck — now we’re hot.’ We’ve got all the pieces and things are going well.”

Colby head coach Blaise MacDonald, who has 301 career wins at Colby, UMass Lowell and Niagara combined, likes where his Mules are at.

“I feel good because I know the work the guys have put in,” MacDonald said. “I know their commitment. I know they’re responsible for what they’re doing and how they’re going to get themselves prepared. I’m really confident because we have great leadership, shared leadership with our senior class. It’s kind of one day at a time, but I do feel very confident.”

In a one-game playoff scenario, MacDonald looks at controlling what the Mules can control. The difference between advancing or heading home is in the details.

“What I firmly believe in these big games is that it’s not the spectacular plays. It’s not the highlight plays,” MacDonald said. “It’s the team that executes the little fundamental simple things the best that wins. It’s faceoff coverage. It’s backchecking. It’s playing with your stick on the ice.

“These are actually easier games than some other games. You just have to do the little things to be the team that wins.”

Travis Barrett — 621-5621

[email protected]

Twitter: @TBarrettGWC

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