SHERIDAN — Fans stood and waved blue rally towels as the scoreboard at the Whitney Rink in the M&M’s Center showed just one minute left in the third period of the North American 3 Hockey League Sheridan Hawks’ game against the Missoula Jr. Bruins Saturday night. Forward Jacob Cummings jumped and hugged teammates on the bench.
The hometown crowd cheered louder and rang cowbells when a whistle with just less than 30 seconds left stopped play, and Hawks hugged each other and pumped their fists in the air on the bench. Under the scoreboard that showed a 10-1 lead, goaltender Cristian Wong-Ramos stopped the puck with six seconds left to play, and players lept from the bench to the ice to swarm the goaltender when the buzzer finally sounded.
“Your Sheridan Hawks have just secured a spot in the Fraser Cup championship,” the public address announcer said, and Sheridan fans cheered louder still as the Hawks players who were scratched shuffled toward the team huddle in dress shoes and suits.
“It’s awesome,” Wong-Ramos said. “There’s no other way to describe it.”
“It feels great,” forward Derek Humphreys said. “It’s what we’ve been working toward all year.”
Sheridan’s 10-1 victory Saturday followed a 4-2 performance Friday against the Jr. Bruins and gave the Hawks the best-of-three series sweep in the first round of the NA3HL playoffs. The victories maintained Sheridan’s 40-game winning streak, advanced it to the Frontier Division finals this weekend and secured a spot in the NA3HL national tournament April 15.
“That was our first taste of the playoffs, and guys were excited,” head coach Andy Scheib said Saturday. “... It shows a lot about the character we have in the locker room, for guys to come out and understand we didn’t play the best we did yesterday then come out and make a statement tonight.”
It took only 14 minutes for the Hawks to look like the 41-1 team they now are, as forward Justin Schwartzmiller, defenseman Brice French and forward Logan Syrup each scored one goal in the first period of Saturday’s game to give their team a 3-0 lead through 20 minutes of play.
The Hawks scored four goals while the Jr. Bruins managed to put just one past Wong-Ramos, and Sheridan added three daggers in the third to earn the 10-1 win — a characteristic performance for the No. 1 team in the Frontier Division and NA3HL who had shaken off the nerves from the night before.
“I think we just played simple,” Scheib said. “We were more relaxed. We were confident in ourselves. It showed we just need to be confident.”
Three goals in 1 minute and 18 seconds excited, stunned and quieted the crowd Friday, as the Hawks looked unlike themselves for a period and a half. For the first time this season, Sheridan and its opponents ended the first period scoreless, and Schwartzmiller broke the tie during a penalty kill to put the Hawks up 1-0 at 14:39 in the second period.
To start the third, Missoula forward Gavin Tritt beat Wong-Ramos to tie the game. Cummings scored his first goal of the postseason and 40th goal of the season 1:55 later, though the Jr. Bruins’ Shane Dotto answered just 24 seconds later to tie the score 2-2.
Eighteen seconds later, with 14 minutes left to play in the period, Humphreys’ wrist shot from the slot beat Jr. Bruins’ goaltender Maxim Currie, and Scheib said Humphreys’ goal calmed his early nerves.
“When they scored right after [us], that’s when I was like, ‘Oh man, they’ve got the momentum. This could go bad,’” Scheib said. “But then we answered, and Humphreys went and scored that third goal. Once we scored that third goal, I knew that we were winning.”
Humphreys added an insurance tally with 6:33 left in the game to push the score to the eventual 4-2 final and set the Hawks up for the series sweep. Humphreys led Sheridan with his two goals Friday, while Syrup and defenseman Dakota Kott added two assists each.
Syrup netted a hat trick on Saturday, as did Schwartzmiller who scored two shorthanded goals and one power play goal during the weekend. Cummings recorded three assists Saturday, and four other Hawks had multi-point performances in game two.
Wong-Ramos stopped 65 of the 68 shots he faced over the course of the weekend.
The Hawks will play the Frontier Division’s No. 2-seeded Great Falls Americans, who beat the Gillette Wild in three games, for the No. 1 seed for the NA3HL Fraser Cup national tournament. Sheridan will play in Great Falls at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, then at home at 7:30 p.m. Friday and, if needed, Saturday.
The Fraser Cup tournament will be held in St. Peters, Missouri, April 15-19.
“There were a little bit of butterflies yesterday,” Humphreys said Saturday. “Especially because we have so much to play for, and we’ve been working so hard, and we didn’t want to see it get wasted. But, as the game went on, the butterflies went away and we came out with the win.”
Editor's note: This article has been updated to include the start time of the Hawks' Thursday game vs. Great Falls.