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UND's transfers stand out in exhibition victory over Bemidji State

The largest crowd to ever watch an exhibition in Ralph Engelstad Arena's 20-year history showed up to see the Fighting Hawks beat the Beavers 2-1.

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Fighting Hawks goaltender Zach Driscoll keeps his eyes on the puck amid chaos around his goal in the first period of a home exhibition hockey game against the Bemidji State Beavers at Ralph Engelstad Arena on Saturday, October 2, 2021. Nick Nelson / Grand Forks Herald

For the first time in 581 days, the UND hockey team played a home game in Ralph Engelstad Arena with no capacity restrictions.

The fans responded by packing the venue, drawing the largest crowd to ever watch an exhibition game in the building's 20-year history.

Perhaps, the 11,812 fans that showed up Friday night in Ralph Engelstad Arena were eager to get out after the coronavirus pandemic forced most of them to watch the Fighting Hawks win the National Collegiate Hockey Conference regular-season and playoff championships from home last season.

Maybe some came to watch an NHL-caliber player put on a show for the first time this season. Jake Sanderson delivered exactly that by taking a puck from behind his own net, skating it the length of the ice and scoring the game-winning goal in the third period of UND's 2-1 win over Bemidji State.

But maybe some fans wanted to check out all the new players on the roster.

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Most of those on the ice Friday -- 12 of 21 to be exact -- were seeing their first action in a UND jersey, and it was obvious which ones had played college hockey before and which ones had not.

The five transfers jumped into the lineup seamlessly and appear ready to have starring roles on this year's team.

Goaltender Zach Driscoll, playing against his old team, Bemidji State, was outstanding in net. He stopped 16 of 17 shots, including a partial breakaway for Ethan Somoza and a clean breakaway for Owen Sillinger, the Beavers' top two goal-scorers from last season.

"That was a weird experience, for sure," said Driscoll, who led the Beavers to within a game of the NCAA Frozen Four last season. "I've obviously played three seasons for that program. I came out for warmups and seeing the Beaver jerseys on the other side of me, that was definitely a little weird. But once the puck drops, you're just playing hockey. It's just a hockey game after that."

Driscoll will get used to it.

Next weekend, UND hosts Niagara in its regular-season opener Friday and Saturday. Then, the Fighting Hawks will play Bemidji State again in a two-game series that actually counts.

"He stood on his head for us tonight," Sanderson said of Driscoll. "We definitely needed him. He had some big saves when we needed it. I think it was kind of, maybe, a little bit mentally harder for him to play his old team, but he stepped up to the plate and hit a home run."

The other four transfers were in the center of the action, too.

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Connor Ford of Bowling Green and Ashton Calder of Lake Superior State started on the team's top line and are playing on the first power-play unit. Calder assisted on the first goal, a power-play snipe by sophomore Riese Gaber.

Defenseman Chris Jandric played second-pair defense and showed flashes of offensive capabilities in his first game since March 7, 2020, when he was at Alaska Fairbanks. He didn't play last season.

Brady Ferner was reliable in his spot on the third pairing, playing his first game since Feb. 29, 2020, when he was at RPI. Ferner also didn't play last season.

"(They have) game experience as far as knowing what to expect on the ice, but also their body composition. . . they're bigger, heavier bodies," UND coach Brad Berry said. "That's college hockey. You have a chance to let your body develop and grow. But I thought, for the most part, our guys did pretty well. . . even though young guys on the fourth line. I thought they did a pretty good job tonight of holding their own and getting a few quality chances."

UND usually plays its preseason exhibition against the University of Manitoba. But because the pandemic has made it nearly impossible for Canadian teams to cross the border, the NCAA passed a waiver allowing teams to play exhibitions against other NCAA teams without it counting against the 34-game limit.

Berry said the Beavers, projected to finish second in the Central Collegiate Hockey Association, provided a good litmus test. The Beavers are an experienced group. They dressed 22 players from last year's squad, which knocked Wisconsin out of the NCAA tournament. The Beavers lost to eventual national champion UMass in the regional final.

UND, meanwhile, turned over more than half of its roster from last season -- eight signed NHL contracts -- but the Fighting Hawks passed their preseason exhibition test Friday night.

"That was exciting," Sanderson said. "We have a lot of new guys on the team. The chemistry was there tonight and I think it's going to be there throughout the year. We're all super pumped. It was a lot of guys' first game in front of a full Ralph. Mine too. Same with my class. I'm excited about this group."

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Notes: UND held four injured players out of the lineup: forward Brendan Budy, forward Carson Albrecht, defenseman Cooper Moore and goaltender Jakob Hellsten. . . The Fighting Hawks dressed three goalies but only Driscoll played. Bemidji State used a different goalie each period -- Michael Carr in the first (eight saves, no goals allowed), Mattias Sholl in the second (six saves, one goal allowed) and Gavin Enright in the third (five saves, one goal allowed).

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