Zach Driscoll gives his team a gift on his 25th birthday
The senior goaltender stopped 34 of 35 shots as the Fighting Hawks extended their lead atop the NCHC standings.
GRAND FORKS — It was Zach Driscoll's 25th birthday Friday.
Instead of receiving gifts, he gave his UND hockey team a big one.
Playing without its best forward and best defenseman, UND managed to beat Western Michigan 2-1 in the series opener thanks to a 34-save performance from Driscoll.
The senior netminder — who has won the National Collegiate Hockey Conference's goalie of the week honor for three-straight weeks — was especially good in the game's final two periods, stopping 17 in the second and 12 in the third.
It gave UND a fifth-straight victory and a ninth-straight game collecting league points.
"He's in the zone," UND coach Brad Berry said of Driscoll. "He really is. He's tracking pucks and finding pucks and he's battling on loose pucks in front of the net. It's experience. He's got a lot of experience behind him. He's hungry to compete and battle. It was his 25th birthday today, so what a birthday present that was."
The Fighting Hawks (20-11-1, 15-5-1) have taken command of the NCHC's Penrose Cup race in stunning fashion.
After falling in four-straight games to open the 2022 calendar year, UND has stormed to the top of the standings, taking 24 of the last 27 available points.
The Fighting Hawks have made much of the charge with a decimated roster. On Friday, they played without leading-scorer Riese Gaber for a second-straight game, superstar blue liner Jake Sanderson for a seventh-straight game and alternate captain Gavin Hain for a 12th-straight game.
It didn't matter. Their lead in the NCHC grew thanks to the victory over Western Michigan and an Omaha win over second-place Denver.
UND now sits four points ahead of the Pioneers and can clinch an unprecedented third-straight Penrose Cup with a regulation win in the series finale at 6:07 p.m. coupled with an Omaha win over Denver.
The Penrose Cup will be in Ralph Engelstad Arena — it has resided there since Feb. 29, 2020, after all — and it will be presented after a Senior Night video tribute if those events occur.
No matter what happens Saturday, UND will be alone at the top of the standings when it heads to Omaha next weekend to conclude the regular season.
"At the end of the day, it was a gutsy team effort," Berry said of his team's win Friday. "The three words we used to describe how we had to play tonight against a good team were 'heart,' 'desire' and 'will.' I think we checked the box on all three."
Jake Schmaltz set up Ashton Calder for a first-period goal and Judd Caulfield fed Matteo Costantini for a second-period tally to provide the offense. UND killed all four Western Michigan power plays, allowing only a second-period, even-strength goal to Jacob Bauer.
The victory over Western Michigan means the Fighting Hawks have beaten teams currently ranked No. 3 (Denver), 4 (Minnesota), 5 (Western Michigan), 7 (Quinnipiac), 8 (Minnesota Duluth) and 11 (St. Cloud State) in the Pairwise. UND sits at No. 6.
Driscoll has been locked in during UND's run.
He's 6-1-1 with a .949 save percentage and a 1.54 goals-against average since reclaiming his starting job from Jakob Hellsten in late January.
"He's a stud right now," Costantini said. "He's keeping it positive in the room and the guys are believing in him, so that's all we need from him. If he keeps playing like that, it's going to be tough for teams to put goals in the back of the net."
Calder has seen this show before.
Calder spent the last three years at Lake Superior State, while Driscoll played at Bemidji State. As Western Collegiate Hockey Association rivals, they played head-to-head 16 times in three years. Both transferred to UND in the summer.
"It's giving me glimpses of the past, for sure," Calder said. "I definitely saw some of this at Lake State. I knew it was coming. He's hot, and when he's hot, watch out."
Driscoll, who will be honored along with Connor Ford, Mark Senden and Hain during Saturday's Senior Night, said his family members attended the series-opening win.
"That was fun," Driscoll said. "Obviously, they're a really good team. We knew that from preparing for this week. It was a really hard-fought game right down to the last 0.1 second there. We found a way to get three points."
And it served as a team birthday present for Driscoll.
"Obviously, it's nice to get that one for him on his big day," Costantini said.