BUFFALO -- Although it's special for a new participant, making it to college hockey's final weekend does not lose its luster the second time around.
Twelve months ago, Minnesota Wild draft pick Nick Swaney left Xcel Energy Center a national champion with Minnesota Duluth. The celebration capped off a year in which the Lakeville native was drafted by his hometown NHL team in the seventh round, began college life and skated on the biggest stage.
For an encore, Swaney's sophomore season at UMD has seen the forward improve from six goals to tying for the team lead with 15. More importantly, his Bulldogs built upon winning the 2019 NCHC Frozen Faceoff -- also at Xcel Energy Center -- to return to this weekend's Frozen Four in Buffalo, New York.
"It's been overall a good season," Swaney told Wild.com. "Being a sophomore this year and more experienced, knowing what college hockey is all about. For me, it's another season that I've kept building as the season goes along. In the second half, I've been building ever since then, but I'm going to try and apply my game to the best of my ability this weekend."
Listed at 5-foot-11, 180 pounds, Swaney prides himself on his work ethic. He describes himself as someone who "likes to play offense, but can play a 200-foot game," while going the entire season without a taking a penalty.
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Swaney is not the only player to represent the Wild in Buffalo, however. On the other side of the ice is Providence junior forward Brandon Duhaime, whom Minnesota selected in the fourth round of the 2016 NHL Draft. The pair face off against one another Thursday afternoon in the opening semifinal of the 2019 Frozen Four.
"Every team sets out the goal to make it here and potentially win a national championship. Just being here is an incredible experience," said the 6-1, 207-pound Duhaime, who enters the Frozen Four with a career-high 33 points (11 goals, 22 assists) this season.
Not dwelling on them, he's aware of the Minnesota ties and opponent. Providence, as it did when the Friars won the 2015 national championship and made its last Frozen Four appearance, advanced as a No. 4 seed. The Friars upset top seed Minnesota State in the first round.
"In my three years, we haven't faced a team from Minnesota minus Mankato last weekend. We've watched enough video to know a lot about them and the way they play," Duhaime said. "But as far as playing Minnesota teams, we're not really familiar with them."
Despite being the lowest seed remaining and facing the highest remaining seed, Providence is not surprised to be among college hockey's last four. Duhaime points to an early November weekend facing Massachusetts as a turning point.
The Friars were swept in a pair of 3-2 losses yet outshot and out-played the eventual Hockey East regular season champions. Knowing his team could play with anyone, Duhaime wasn't afraid to stick through adversity. It paid off in the East Regional final when the junior scored the empty net goal that clinched Providence's Frozen Four berth.
Two games from a national championship, Duhaime believes he has grown as a leader and player from his freshman season at Providence until now.
"Big credit to the coaching staff," he said. "That's what they stress here is to bring it every single day. There's no days off. It's a lot of hard work and it grows you as a person."
He's not alone. Swaney has also taken away from his time in college that showing up every night and having the consistency is more important than one big performance. That becomes important playing in a conference (NCHC) which has been home to the past three national champions.
It's a mantra that so far has worked wonders for the sophomore. The Bulldogs, by winning trophies, already made memories which will last forever. He's hoping to add more this weekend in his second Frozen Four go-round.
"For a lot of the guys, we talked about coming in here and enjoying the whole experience. At the end of the day ... the goal is to win a national championship, but at the same time it's tough to even get to this point in the first place," Swaney said. "When Thursday comes along, we know what we have got to do, but in the meantime enjoy the experience.
"When it comes to the hockey part, we'll be ready to go."