Only three current Gophers seniors ever have played in a Final Five game.

Jake Hansen and Nico Sacchetti were forwards on the Gophers hockey team that lost to Minnesota Duluth 2-1 on March 19, 2009 at Xcel Energy Center in the only quarterfinal that year. Kent Patterson relieved an ill Alex Kangas in the nets after the second period. He faced 20 shots and gave up one goal.

"It is just exciting to be back there," Hansen said. "Obviously, we have had struggles here the last three years."

The Gophers have not advanced to the Final Five the past two years, nor to the NCAA tournament the past three years.

But this season, the Gophers finished atop the WCHA regular-season standings, swept their first-round conference playoff series with Alaska Anchorage and already are assured of playing in the national tournament's West Regional.

"To win the MacNaughton Cup," Hansen said, "and now to be able to go [to St. Paul] as the No. 1 seed, the guys are pretty pumped, pretty jacked to be playing Friday night."

The Gophers will face North Dakota or St. Cloud State in the second semifinal on Friday. Hansen, leading scorer Erik Haula and captain Taylor Matson all said it didn't matter who their opponent would be, but then two of them dropped hints at their preference.

"Obviously, North Dakota is one of our biggest rivals," said Haula, who has 19 goals and 44 points, "and those games tend to get a little crazy."

"[UND] is my biggest rival," Taylor said, "and a lot of guys can say that, too. Nothing is like playing North Dakota, especially at the Xcel. That would be special."

Coach Don Lucia said the Gophers know both UND and SCSU well. His team was 3-1 against both this season.

"I don't think there are going to be too many surprises," Lucia said. "No matter who we play, St. Cloud or North Dakota, both are playing extremely well. It will be a great environment for our players and for me just to evaluate how they perform. And the good news is, no matter what, we will be right back there the following weekend."

The Gophers and UMD both have spots in the 16-team NCAA field locked up. North Dakota and Denver probably will make the NCAA tournament, too. UND and Denver are tied for No. 11 in the latest PairWise rankings, which mimic how the NCAA selects its 11 at-large teams. St. Cloud State and Michigan Tech have to win the Final Five for one of the five automatic bids reserved for conference tournament champions.

Final Five called best

Lucia said he will be sad when the Final Five, as it looks now, anyway, is held for the last time in 2013.

The WCHA will disband for the 2013-14 season, with the Gophers and Wisconsin joining the new Big Ten Conference, and five other WCHA schools leaving for the new National Collegiate Hockey Conference.

"We have the premier college hockey conference tournament in the country with the proximity of all our teams," Lucia said. "When you go to games this weekend, you are going to see jerseys from all the different teams within the league. It is a celebration of hockey in our region at the collegiate level."

Etc.

The NCAA men's hockey selection show will be at 11 a.m. Sunday on ESPNU. The semifinals of the West Regional on March 24 at will be on ESPN3 while the final the next day will be on both ESPNU and ESPN3.