SHERIDAN — With their 4-2 and 10-1 defeat of the Missoula Jr. Bruins, the North American 3 Hockey League Sheridan Hawks clinched a spot at the Fraser Cup National Championship tournament beginning next week. Before the Hawks head to St. Peters, Missouri, they play the Great Falls Americans for the Frontier Division title Thursday, Friday and, if needed, Saturday.
Beating the Americans in the best-of-three games series would secure the No. 1 spot in the national tournament for the Hawks, and Sheridan would earn the No. 6 seed if they lost the series. Two victories would also maintain the Hawks’ winning streak that currently checks in at 40 games, but they value their series against Great Falls as another step toward a championship.
“Winning a playoff series feels pretty good, but there’s a lot more we need to do,” defenseman Dakota Kott said. “That was just one of the smaller goals we had, and we’ve got to move on to the next round.”
Against Missoula last Friday, Sheridan looked unlike itself by playing to its first 0-0 tie after the first period. A 1-0 lead dissolved into a flurry of goals in the span of 1:18 in the third period, prompting nervousness from head coach Andy Scheib before forward Derek Humphreys scored twice to secure the 4-2 win.
As the regular season Frontier Division champions, No. 1 team in the division and No. 1 team in the NA3HL, Sheridan roared back to a 10-1 win Saturday as the team became more comfortable with its line combinations and defensive pairings. During their abbreviated week of practice before traveling to Great Falls Wednesday, the Hawks grew increasingly comfortable with the combinations.
The Hawks’ top line scored one goal in their series sweep against the Jr. Bruins, while the second line added five goals, the third scored four and the fourth line netted two. Defensemen Brice French and Davis Smidt scored a goal each from the blue line, while goaltender Cristian Wong-Ramos stopped 65 of the 68 shots he faced in net.
In addition to the 20 players who took the ice last weekend, Scheib anticipates all 27 of Sheridan’s players to contribute to the Hawks’ championship push. Playing at least twice this weekend, then as many as four games in the Fraser Cup tournament, Sheridan held shorter practices this week and plans on rotating players in and out of the lineup, if needed.
“Fatigue is going to happen,” Scheib said, “But it’s about how we overcome it.”
Smidt and Kott expect a healthy amount of nerves along with added confidence after winning their playoff series against Missoula. Though they’ve secured a spot to play for the Fraser Cup, the focus remains on Great Falls before a bus trip to Missouri.
“Winning our division in the playoffs is definitely one of our goals, so you can’t think too far ahead,” Kott said.
When the Hawks played in Great Falls in January, Sheridan played to 4-1 and 4-3 win, but when the Americans played at the Whitney Rink in the M&M’s Center, the Hawks won back-to-back 9-2 games the following week. The Americans concluded the regular season with a 27-11-2 record, a 15-4 road record and the No. 2 seed in the Frontier Division.
Driven by two shutout performances from Trever Mellen, the eighth-best goaltender after the regular season who averaged 2.35 goals against and a .938 save percentage, Great Falls beat the Gillette Wild in three games to advance to the Frontier Division finals and host the Hawks for game one.
“If we go out there and do what we’re supposed to do, we’re going to be just fine,” Scheib said.
The Frontier Division finals begin at the Great Falls Ice Plex at 7 p.m. Thursday and continue with puck drop at the Whitney Rink at 7:30 p.m. Friday and, if needed, Saturday.