WATERVILLE — The best college hockey team in the state of Maine doesn’t come from the New England Small College Athletic Conference, where rivals Colby and Bowdoin compete, and it doesn’t come from the once perennial national powerhouse University of Maine.
One has to drive much further south, more than 150 miles from Orono, to find the state’s best hockey offering.
Biddeford hosts the University of New England, the No. 8 team in the nation in both NCAA Division III polls this week. The Nor’easters were 11-3-0 entering Tuesday night’s non-conference meeting with Colby at Alfond Rink, and the program has its sights set on a second straight Commonwealth Coast Conference championship this season.
“It’s been a good start to the year for us,” UNE head coach Kevin Swallow said prior to puck drop Tuesday night. “The challenging part of our schedule is the second half. Obviously, we’ve got a good record right now, but the second half will really show us where we’re at.”
Swallow, a Michigan native who played college hockey at both Dartmouth and Maine (2010), has been at the UNE helm for five seasons now. Ranked nationally since midway through the 2017-18 season, UNE remains in the national conversation as one of the best programs in Division III and the Nor’easters are trying to take the next step from conference champions to national title contender.
But being Maine’s best Division III team also comes with its share of attention — which isn’t always good.
“I think it’s kind of cool to be ranked, but at the same time it’s really nothing but a number next to your name,” Swallow said. “College hockey has gotten so good across the board that any team can beat anyone on any given night. It kind of puts a target on our backs, where we know we’re going to get the other team’s best effort every night.”
Colby and UNE have a history. Not only do the Mules play each of the other Division III teams in Maine annually — Bowdoin twice in NESCAC play, with non-league games against UNE and the University of Southern Maine yearly staples on the schedule — but the two met in the opening round of the 2018 NCAA Tournament.
That year, Colby advanced to its first Frozen Four appearance in program history. While that run included ending the Nor’easters season early, UNE hasn’t slowed a bit since.
Led by senior forward Ryan Bloom and his 20 points this season (8 goals and 12 assists, both team highs), Swallow’s team still features an explosive offense at nearly five goals per game (4.93) to rank second in the nation and a power play clicking along at 25 percent efficiency for the season.
“Now, (scoring) is spread out across our roster,” Swallow said. “We’ve got a lot of depth at every single position, and we get a lot of contributions from the first line through the fourth line and the first defenseman through the sixth defenseman every night.”
There are 11 players in the Nor’easter lineup with nine or more points through the first 14 games this season, including senior defenseman Ryan Burr (3-10-13 totals). By contrast, Colby has just two players with nine or more points this season.
Neither of those Mules featured Tuesday, with leading scorer Justin Grillo (4-6-10) missing his second straight due to injury and J.P. Schuhlen (2-7-9) a healthy scratch.
Given the truncated nature of the NESCAC schedule, Colby head coach Blaise MacDonald routinely utilizes unfamiliar faces on his roster in non-conference games. Tuesday night’s game was no different, with Jalen Kaplan seeing just his second game of the season and freshman Brooks Gammill seeing his first action of the season.
Swallow historically has looked at non-conference games as must-win, given UNE’s charge to an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament in 2018. With losses to Williams and Endicott over their last nine games, the Nor’easters are focusing on the CCC. Currently, UNE sits one point ahead of 10th-ranked Salve Regina, the 2018 national runner-up.
“Two years ago, I think we won every non-conference game that season. Where we’re at right now, the at-large bid is kind of the window for us,” Swallow said. “This game (against Colby) and the game the other night against Morrisville, we were trying a few different guys in a few different situations.”