SHERIDAN — The North American 3 Hockey League Sheridan Hawks’ practice Wednesday ended with a lighthearted three-on-three then four-on-four scrimmage as players enthusiastically celebrated goals and chirped each other from the bench. The on-ice, uncharacteristically relaxed work lasted just more than an hour during the team’s first bye-week of the season.
Sheridan has played 28 games since the start of the 2020-21 season Oct. 2, putting together a 27-1 record and 26-game winning streak to sit atop the Frontier Division and league standings. Wednesday practices typically consist of high-tempo, intense drills when the team prepares for its weekend opponent.
But a reprieve from games this weekend coupled with the Hawks’ 6-4 win over the Gillette Wild last Friday, which secured Sheridan an NA3HL playoff spot, prompted head coach Andy Scheib and assistant coach Chad Bailey to plan an easier week on the ice. On Monday, though, the team will resume its quest to play for the Fraser Cup.
“We’ve got to keep doing what we’re doing,” Scheib said. “The only thing that will change is we’ve got so many new players, and we’ve got to get everyone on the same page and get everyone to buy into what we’re trying to do. … We’re here to win a championship.”
The bye week comes at an opportune time for the Hawks, as the NA3HL trade deadline passed Sunday at midnight and the league’s rosters froze Wednesday at midnight, meaning teams can no longer add players from fellow NA3HL teams or other leagues. Scheib added one forward, two defensemen and a goaltender in the past week.
Forward Jack Harris came from the Yellowstone Quake, a Frontier Division opponent. The 10th best point-getter in the league, Harris averages 1.57 points per game and has scored 25 goals while recording 22 assists for 47 points through 30 games played. Harris’ performance earned him the NA3HL Frontier Division Star of the Week twice this season.
Scheib had watched Harris play against the Hawks for the past two seasons, thought the forward would add depth to Sheridan’s lineup and wanted to give the talented Wyoming native an opportunity to compete for a championship.
Defenseman Davis Smidt played with forward Nick Wieben, another Sheridan Hawks recent addition, for the New Ulm Steel and brings playoff experience to Sheridan and versatility as a blue liner who “can do it all,” Scheib said.
Fellow defenseman Brice French and goaltender Christian Wong-Ramos skated for the Texas Roadrunners and wanted to continue to play together. Sheridan needed another defenseman and a goaltender for added depth, which increased the pair’s appeal before Scheib acquired both.
Wong-Ramos started for Sheridan against the Gillette Wild last Friday, playing just more than 30 minutes in net and stopping 16 of the 19 shots he faced. The goaltender improved Saturday, stopping 35 of the 37 shots he faced for the entire 60 minutes en route to the Hawks’ 7-2 win.
French adds size to Sheridan’s blue line, and the 6-foot-2 skater describes himself as an offensive defenseman who is willing to be physical and protect his teammates. After French and the other newcomers trickled into Sheridan last week, they began adjusting to the Hawks’ style of play and contributing to the organization’s championship expectations.
“The winning mentality is a lot of fun,” French said. “Everyone likes to win, but coming in here it’s a whole other level.”
Sheridan Hawks veteran forward Justin Schwartzmiller pointed out this weekend without games gives the veterans and newcomers an opportunity to bond off the ice as the Hawks prepare to establish chemistry on the ice next week. Scheib shared Schwartzmiller’s sentiment, saying the greatest unknown for Sheridan during the final six weeks of the season will be team chemistry.
“Chemistry is going to be big for us,” Scheib said. “We took a gamble by bringing in all of these players, and we’re going to see if it’s going to pay off. Right now, I’m confident in the players we have, in terms of talent and skill, but I don’t think we’re gelling and playing our best hockey.”
Chemistry shows itself in forward line combinations and defensive pairings, which Scheib and Bailey will attempt to figure out next week. The forward line of Blake Billings, Jacob Cummings and Wieben serves as the only combination likely to continue to play together, while the other trios and pairs will be shuffled to find success. Sheridan’s coaching staff plans to ensure all of its players receive adequate playing time as well, conscious of a player’s decision to join a team late in the season.
Next weekend’s games at the Whitney Rink in the M&M’s Center against the Missoula Junior Bruins will put the Hawks’ chemistry to the test as they try to maintain their 26-game winning streak. The streak doesn’t scare Scheib, as the head coach doesn’t look ahead and consider Sheridan’s regular season ending 39-1 but approaches each game one at a time.
The Hawks have adopted Scheib’s season-long mantra of preparing for the best version of Sheridan’s opponent during any given two-game weekend series.
“[Winning] helps us in the fact that we get everybody’s best game every night,” Schwartzmiller said. “In the playoffs, it’s do or die. Right now, everyone wants to beat us, so it truly helps us get ready for the playoffs.”
The final stretch before the playoffs begins Monday when the Hawks resume their game-week practice schedule and plan to continue their unrelenting pursuit of a championship, despite the uncertainty of the recent additions and security of locking up their playoff spot.
“It’s a real confidence booster,” Wieben said. “[It] takes some stress off your back just knowing you’re going to go to playoffs, but at the same time, you’ve still got to work your bag off every day to get better.”