DURHAM — Been there, played them.
The University of New Hampshire hockey team gathered in the lounge upstairs at the Whittemore Center and got the word on Sunday night via the NCAA Division I hockey Selection Show: The Wildcats will play Denver University on Friday at 8 p.m. on ESPNU at Verizon Wireless Arena in one semifinal game in the Northeast Regional.
UNH, 19-11-7, is the No. 2 seed in the Manchester regional and returns to the national tournament after a year away. Denver, 20-13-5, is No. 3 and in the tournament for the sixth straight season.
The other semifinal pairs No. 1 UMass Lowell against No. 4 Wisconsin, 22-12-7, at 4:30. Lowell won the Hockey East tournament title and Wisconsin was the Western Collegiate Hockey Association champion.
Friday’s winners play in the regional championship game on Saturday at 6:30 at the Verizon with a berth in the Frozen Four on the line. The Frozen Four is set for April 11 and 13 at the Consol Energy Center in Pittsburgh.
“This is what we play for,” said UNH junior forward and leading scorer Kevin Goumas. “Missing the playoffs last year was definitely upsetting. We came in and that was the goal for this year. We wanted to play in the NCAA tournament and we worked hard at it.”
Dick Umile’s Wildcats won a wild game at Denver, 6-4, on Nov. 24.
The Pioneers grabbed a 3-0 lead just 9:05 into the game. The Wildcats still trailed 4-2 heading into the third period and scored four goals in the third.
Sophomore Grayson Downing and Goumas each had a hat trick for the Wildcats. Goumas also had a pair of assists for a five-point night.
“It was one of the great comebacks we had over the season,” said Umile. “I think it’s where the team really developed its character, the never-quit attitude the team had. But they’re a good team. It’s all about who’s going to play well. It’s a whole ’nother season and who gets on a roll and plays well.”
The Wildcats, who had reached the NCAA tournament 10 consecutive years before falling short last season, are back in the playoffs to make it 11 appearances in the last 12 years and 15 in the last 17.
UNH made the tournament largely on the strength of an impressive first half.
The Wildcats went 10-1-2 to open the season and piled up valuable wins both in conference and out in the process. They had a pair of wins against St. Cloud State at home to start the season and the come-from-behind win at Denver during Thanksgiving.
They beat UMass Lowell, which turned it on in the second half of the season, three times in that opening run and Boston University twice.
All those wins ended up being worth a lot when it came to the ratings that the NCAA uses to pick the at-large teams for the tournament.
“We slowed down a little bit in the second half, but I think we’re going to build up this week and hopefully make a good run at it,” Goumas said.
Now UNH, like 15 other teams in the tournament, will try to string together a couple of regional wins to earn its way to Pittsburgh.
The Wildcats competed in the Frozen Four in four of the six seasons from 1998 to 2003.
But they have not been back to the championship round since losing to Minnesota, 5-1, in the championship game in Buffalo in 2003.
Denver has won seven NCAA championships and most recently won consecutive titles in 2004 and 2005.
The Pioneers beat New Hampshire, 4-2, in the regional final in Amherst, Mass., on the way to the 2005 title.
They beat Maine, 1-0, at the TD Garden in Boston in the national championship in 2004.
Friday, the Pioneers and Wildcats meet again with much on the line, this time in Manchester.
“We want to take it as far we can go,” Goumas said. “But we’re not looking at it that way right now. We’ve got to take it one game at a time and just focus on playing Denver and hopefully from there we can see whether we have to play Lowell or Wisconsin.”