LEWISTON — By the time the puck dropped at Dwyer Arena on Saturday night, the playoff scenario was already set for Niagara.
After Sacred Heart defeated Connecticut earlier in the day, the Purple Eagles knew they would host AIC in next weekend’s first-round Atlantic Hockey playoff series.
It’s a good thing Niagara had that all taken care of, because they were running into all sorts of lineup problems on the ice, dropping a 4-1 decision to Air Force in front of 1,042.
Senior captain Ryan Rashid and junior defenseman Kevin Albers were missing from the lineup after suffering injuries in Friday night’s 4-1 win over the Falcons.
They lost two-thirds of their top line in the second period – T. J. Sarcona to a game misconduct for a contact to the head penalty and Isaac Kohls to a crushing hit to the head. Also in that second period, defenseman Tyler Akeson went down with what Niagara coach Dave Burkholder said was a lower-body injury.
That left the Purple Eagles with just 15 skaters. Still, they did everything but score, outshooting the Falcons, 35-23.
“Right to the end of the third period we were still going hard,” senior defenseman Kevin Ryan said. “Everyone was moving their feet, getting pucks on net, cycling the puck, battling in our zone to get it out. Guys were getting to the net. You can’t ask for anything more especially with a short bench in the third period. The bounces didn’t go our way but we created them and that’s a big part of what we want to do. We’re doing the right things heading to the playoffs.”
Air Force built a 2-1 lead after the first period on a pair of goals by Ben Carey. The sophomore scored just 1:58 into the game and then tallied on the power play at the 12-minute mark.
Niagara got on the board at 3:20 on a goal from Chris Lochner. It was the only score of the day for the Purple Eagles, who went 0 for 6 on the power play.
Early in the second, Niagara killed off the five-minute major to Sarcona, who was given a game misconduct at 4:55. The Purple Eagles had several fantastic scoring chances – including a hit post by Patrick Divjak – but they couldn’t convert.
Air Force, meanwhile, extended its lead to 3-1 midway through the second with a goal by Adam McKenzie. They scored with 53 seconds left in the third on the power play.
Niagara now prepares for the Atlantic Hockey playoffs. The Purple Eagles secured the No. 6 seed and will host AIC in a best-of-three first-round series at Dwyer beginning Friday.
The injury situation will need to be sorted out come Monday after meetings and evaluations with doctors and trainers.
Kohls is the team’s leading scorer with 12 goals and 24 points this season. Rashid has been a leader both in the room and on the ice with 10 goals and 19 points. Defensively, Albers has played in 28 games, He and Akeson have been steady on the blueline.
“It’s that time of year, the dog days,” Burkholder said. “We’ve considered ourselves in playoff mode for three weeks now. We’re fortunate we haven’t had this many injuries at once, but it’s coming at the worst possible time for us.”
Niagara and AIC split the regular-season series played in Dwyer Jan. 3-4. AIC won the first game, 6-2, with Niagara responding with a 5-0 win on the second night.