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GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. – Coach Dave Burkholder takes pride in the fact Niagara’s seniors have held the team together throughout the season, but the Purple Eagles were operating one key member shy of the full six pack in defenseman and captain Dan Weiss.

Weiss missed his second straight game Friday when Niagara made its NCAA Tournament return against North Dakota in Van Andel Arena. His knee injury prevented him from playing since the conclusion of the Purple Eagles’ Atlantic Hockey quarterfinal series against RIT.

Weiss being relegated to spectator status was a blow the Purple Eagles failed to overcome but not for lack of trying during a season-ending 2-1 loss to UND in the West Regional semifinals.

Weiss watching from afar against a foe that suits up 14 NHL draft picks was not where the Purple Eagles wanted the 6-foot-2, 195-pound physical presence who plays in all game situations, competes relentlessly and has started 31 of 38 games.

“He’s a senior captain. Had his best season this year, he was a second team all-star [in Atlantic Hockey], he was a warrior, one of our best penalty killers,” Burkholder said. “It’s too bad. As a coach, I want these seniors to experience this. He saw it from the sidelines. He wasn’t out there in the trenches with his brothers.”

The game was supposed to be a reward for everyone who had a hand in Niagara’s 23-win season, especially Weiss along with classmates Marc Zanette, Giancarlo Iuorio, Jeff Hannan, Jason Beattie and C.J. Chartrain. They pretty much ran the team except for those three hours a day the coaching staff was around the players, Burkholder said.

All they did was help the program fashion a confidence-building 12-game unbeaten streak early in the season, which helped lead to Niagara’s highest victory total since the 1999-2000 Elite Eight team won 30 games. It’s the fifth 20-win season in NU’s 17 seasons.

Friday was the moment they all had worked toward since they first set foot on Monteagle Ridge. It was a quest they took quite seriously from the moment of the first team meeting back in September, especially since last year’s graduating seniors became the first at Niagara to not go to an NCAA Tournament. They didn’t want to become the second.

“It was an unbelievable ride,” Burkholder said. “Our staff, we judge our team Monday through Thursday by how hard they work when no one’s around and these guys are incredible and I thank them for doing it ... These guys get a banner. An NCAA banner will be hung at the Dwyer.”

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Junior Ryan Murphy almost didn’t lead the Purple Eagles in scoring.

He started on the fourth line and a slow start almost landed him in the press box. He received a reprieve before the start of the Clarkson series back in late October due to injuries and suddenly found himself on the top line with Iuorio and Zanette.

Score one for why not.

He finished with 15 goals and a team-high 36 points.

For his career, the 6-1, 195-pounder speedy winger with gifted hands has 28 goals and 64 points, meaning he has a chance to make a run at Niagara’s exclusive 100-point Century Club, which has just 13 members.

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Goalie Carsen Chubak, who was heavily scouted by NHL teams throughout the season, is just the third Purple Eagle to become a finalist for the Hobey Baker Award. He joins a list that includes Joe Tallari (2003) and Paul Zanette (2011).

A second-round of voting by the 23-member selection committee and fan balloting will trim the list of 10 finalists down to three by Wednesday. The winner will be announced April 12 during the Frozen Four in Pittsburgh.

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Buffalo has connections with North Dakota – the Sabres that is.

Assistant coach James Patrick helped the team formerly known as the Fighting Sioux win the national title in 1982.

Sabres forward Drew Stafford helped UND to a national runner-up finish in 2005 during his three season career that concluded in 2006.

email: mrodriguez@buffnews.com