Jacob Bryson could one day make a habit of playing in Buffalo. He's compiled an impressive collegiate resume since being selected by the Sabres in the fourth round of the 2017 NHL Draft, one that includes 73 points and a pair of Hockey East All-Star honors.
Yet, in the aftermath of his KeyBank Center debut on Thursday, the junior defenseman was more interested in reflecting on a memorable run to the postseason than contemplating his future. Bryson saw his campaign come to an end with Providence College's 4-1 loss to Minnesota Duluth in the Frozen Four.
"I'm really not focused on that right now," he said when asked about potentially signing with the Sabres this offseason. "I'm so excited with how my team played tonight, how we've been over the season. We came so far and did such a great job, and that's really what I'm focused on right now."
Bryson looked the part of a team captain while speaking at the podium after the loss, swallowing his disappointment while he thanked the city and complemented the job done by his coaches and teammates. He came as advertised on the ice, too, assisting on the Providence's only goal of the night.
The 5-foot-9 defenseman played bigger than his size, not shying from battles against a Minnesota Duluth team that came out looking to set the tone physically. He was cool under pressure when moving the puck out of his own zone and put his ability to join the rush on display at multiple junctures of the night.
Friars coach Nate Leaman complimented Bryson's ability to quarterback the power play on Wednesday, something the junior had excelled at as of late. He was on the ice for four power-play goals during the team's comeback win over Minnesota State in the opening game of the NCAA Tournament.
He put that ability on display again with Providence trailing 1-0 midway through the second period. Just seconds into the Friars' first power play of the night, Bryson dished the puck twice from the point to get the penalty kill scrambling and then put a shot on goal. Fellow junior Josh Wilkins buried the rebound.
Ironically, it was also a missed power play that cost the Friars in the third. They held a 5-on-3 advantage for 1:18 but were unable to score, thanks in part to some timely saves by Bulldogs goalie Hunter Shepard.
Senior Billy Exell - making his third straight Frozen Four appearance - gave the Bulldogs a lead with 9:53 remaining. Bryson was stepping onto the ice for one last push as Dylan Samberg tallied the first of two empty-net goals for the Bulldogs with 32.2 seconds left on the clock.
Sitting alongside fellow junior captain Kasper Bjorkqvist at the podium, Bryson reflected on his time at Providence after the loss. He said their perennial appearances in the NCAA Tournament were reflective of a quality program, which Bjorkqvist referred to as the hottest in college hockey.
"The three years that Kasper and I were both here, we made it to the tournament," Bryson said. "This was our first experience in the Frozen Four, and it was just unbelievable. That shows you how good a program this is."
Bryson could now have a decision on his hands. He and Bjorkqvist, a Penguins prospect, could take one last run at a national championship as seniors next season. Or, if the Sabres are interested, he could leave school a year early and sign his entry-level deal.
There will be time to make that choice. This night was about the present moment, a memory made in Buffalo. It may be the first of many.
"It was an awesome experience being here in Buffalo, especially for the Frozen Four," Bryson said. "I know myself and my teammates definitely enjoyed the hospitality we got from Buffalo, especially the hotel staff and people around the rink and the fans. Playing that game tonight, it was very fun."
Frozen Four notes
• Minnesota Duluth will play Massachusetts and Denver at 8 p.m. on Saturday. The Bulldogs will be looking to become the first team to repeat as national champions since Denver won back-to-back titles in 2004 and 2005.
• Exell, an alternate captain for the Bulldogs, had only scored 10 goals in his collegiate career prior to netting the game-winner on Thursday.
"It's kind of how our team is built," Bulldogs coach Scott Sandelin said. "We've got a lot of guys probably that could be higher up, if you want. If you look at our team, we're built with balance. We have been for a lot of years.
"Some years the top lines might be a little more defined. Every guy on our team has an importance and a role. Billy has turned into a real good penalty killer for us because of his speed. He creates a lot of things through his speed."
• Shepard was named to the NCAA All-Tournament following Minnesota Duluth's run to a national championship last year. He'll be one of five finalists looking to win the Mike Richter Award as the nation's top goaltender during the NCAA Awards Presentation Ceremony at Harborcenter.
The ceremony, which begins at 4:30 p.m., will culminate with the presentation of the Hobey Baker Award. UMass defenseman Cale Makar, the fourth-overall pick by Colorado in 2017, is one of three finalists.
• UMass advanced to the national championship for the first time in program history with a 4-3 overtime win over Denver in the late game on Thursday. Denver scored twice in the third period to erase a two-goal deficit, but defenseman Marc Del Gaizo buried a hard shot from the left point to win the game for the Minutemen with 4:42 remaining in the extra period.
"It's probably the coolest moment of my life," Del Gaizo said afterward. "Right now it seems like I'm dreaming, but we're off to the national championship and that's all that matters."