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Niagara hockey copes with a parade of injuries

LEWISTON – This is not the way Kevin Albers thought his senior season would play out.

The defensive captain for the Niagara hockey team missed 12 games with injuries, first with an upper body ailment that kept him out of the lineup until Oct. 17, followed by a head injury second semester that kept him out of 10 more games.

As the captain goes, so goes his team and that was unfortunate for the Purple Eagles.

Niagara never could get healthy, never had a full lineup and failed to find its footing for the majority of the season.

The Purple Eagles, who held the promise of an Atlantic Hockey contender in the preseason, close out the regular season guaranteed of the worst record in program history.

Albers smiles and half shakes his head. There’s only so much you can do with the hand that fate deals.

“It’s just how it goes,” Albers said. “That’s the game. It’s a physical game and unfortunate things do happen. This year we’ve had a lot of those happen to us and with the new season of playoffs coming up, you never know what’s going to happen.”

Albers will play his last game in Dwyer Arena on Friday as the Purple Eagles host Robert Morris in a home-and-home weekend. Niagara will finish in the bottom two of the league – 10th or 11th – placing it on the road for as long as a playoff run can last.

Strange things have happened in the Atlantic Hockey postseason the last two years and Albers has experienced the upsets first hand.

His sophomore year the Purple Eagles were nationally ranked and dominated the conference, entering the tournament as the regular-season champion, only to lose in the semifinals to Canisius, which finished seventh in the regular season.

Niagara returned to the Atlantic Hockey final four last year, again losing in the semifinals to the eventual champion, this time fifth-seeded Robert Morris.

With all that experience and a talented sophomore class, Niagara entered this year a league favorite.

But then Albers came into the season with an injury. TJ Sarcona broke his wrist when he fell awkwardly during a training run. Jackson Teichroeb injured his hamstring during the intrasquad scrimmage. Vince Muto broke his arm opening weekend.

Once those players returned, more injuries came.

Just as Niagara seemed to turn the corner, picking up three points against Air Force and ending an 18-game winless streak, the Purple Eagles lost three more players.

Senior forward Sam Alfieri broke his leg in the final seconds of overtime on Saturday. In that game freshman forward Derian Plouffe also was injured. Junior defenseman Matt Dineen broke his jaw at practice on Tuesday.

The most frustrating aspect for Albers has been “having high hopes and high expectations for everyone on the team and then getting in a rut early and not being able to get out of it,” he said.

“There were signs of us being able to get out of the rut, we’d have success and then we’d battle injuries all year. Once we got guys back, some others would be out. It’s been tough but everyone’s been pretty upbeat and positive in the locker room.”

His attitude is what has carried him through the roller coaster of his senior season. In 114 career games he has 20 points (three goals, 17 assists) and 111 blocked shots.

“He’s a warrior for us,” Niagara coach Dave Burkholder said. “He’s the ultimate competitor. We made him a captain as a junior not for his voice in the locker room but when it’s time to practice and when the referees show up, he’s one of our hardest working guys. He’s a battler. You want your younger guys looking up to Kevin.”