ST. PAUL- Out of the four teams in this weekend's West Regional at Xcel Energy Center, second seed St. Cloud State (21-10-5) is the only one whose season last year ended with a trip to the Frozen Four.
The Huskies, who defeated Notre Dame 5-1 in the Midwest Regional Final last year to advance to its first Frozen Four in school history, once again look to use the Fighting Irish as a springboard further. The two teams play in the second West Regional semifinal at 9 p.m. ET (8:00 p.m CT) on ESPNU following Minnesota-Robert Morris.
While repeating last year is a tough task for any team, it's the experience in which St. Cloud State is hoping to build upon this time around just 90 miles down the road from home.
"Obviously it's exciting for the University to get its name out there and go so far, but realistically things change," said Huskies senior Nic Dowd (Los Angeles Kings), a Hobey Baker finalist who leads the team in goals (21) and points (39). "It's so difficult to make it to the Tournament and I think that preparing the same way we would prepare - 1 game at a time - and hope for the best."
Still, St. Cloud State's run to its second consecutive NCAA Tournament has shown that the team was not a one year fluke. Head coach Bob Motzko credits the work his team has done to keep the momentum going.
Despite losing several key members of his team such as 2013 Hobey Baker Award winner Drew LeBlanc, now with the Chicago Blackhawks, Motzko's squad has avoided a letdown season. That includes winning the first-ever Penrose Cup as NCHC regular season champions; SCSU's second consecutive regular season title. (The Huskies shared the 2012-13 WCHA regular season title with Minnesota before departing for the NCHC.)
"We started the year right where we left off," Motzko said. "That was the leadership that carried us. We didn't bounce, we didn't have a setback and so the question ‘what did we learn,' it gained us confidence, it made us believers - I don't know what the right word is - but we didn't have a letdown.
"That really starts with the leadership of our team. We handled last year's success and carried it right back to Day 1 this year."
Not everything has gone as smoothly for SCSU in the lead up to playing Notre Dame. Two weekends ago the top-seeded Huskies were swept at home by eighth-seed Miami in a pair of close games. The extra time off has given St. Cloud State some extra time to practice and reflect.
"You kind of obviously have to expect the unexpected, run into a hot goalie or anything. You have to be ready to go," said co-captain Kevin Gravel. "I don't know if there's really any similarities to what our run was last year and what it has on ours this year."
While a possible date with Minnesota, who already defeated SCSU this season 4-1 at Xcel Energy Center, looms Sunday, it's no guarantee in a single elimination tournament. Still, the last two trips to the NCAA Tournament have involved the program's first D1 Tournament win in 2010 (in St. Paul, no less) and first Frozen Four berth in 2013.
St. Cloud State's hope is to be putting everything together. Again.
"This tournament, I think, gets started after Game 1," Motzko said. "You've got to win to get momentum going and to be part of the tournament. It's a terrible feeling to lose the first game and then go home.
Nathan Wells is a college hockey columnist for SB Nation. You can also follow him on Twitter -- Follow @gopherstate