SHERIDAN — Three-hundred-and-two days have passed since the NA3HL Sheridan Hawks loaded their bus to journey five hours home from Great Falls, Mont. after a 4-2 loss to the Americans March 11. Only 10 of the current 29 Hawks played in the first game of the opening round of the North American 3 Hockey League playoffs, and the Sheridan veterans share the same memory.

“I mean, we lost,” forward Blake Billings said.

“We lost,” forward Jacob Cummings said. “And it was not a good feeling.”

“It was a tough game,” goaltender James Downie said.

Because, for the returning Hawks, the game against Great Falls was another step to their championship aspirations just as this weekend’s games will be.

“Even though you lose a game, you go back next time and think you’re going to win,” Downie said. “You can’t dwell on the past — it’s already out of our heads.”

During the five-hour post-loss bus ride last March, players checked their phones and heard rumblings of various sports leagues considering season cancellations due to COVID-19. Two days later, the NA3HL announced it would end the 2019-20 season, stealing the Hawks’ opportunity to host Great Falls at the Whitney Rink and avenge their playoff loss.

Now, nearly 10 months later, Sheridan will load its bus to return to Great Falls for the first time since its inaugural season and playoff run ended abruptly. Though the loss stands out to the players who returned for the 2020-21 season, for the team and head coach Andy Scheib, this weekend’s two-game series will serve as another test for the NA3HL No. 1 Hawks.

“I wouldn’t say there’s unfinished business,” Cummings said, “but it’s definitely going to be a battle. It’s all going to be mental.”

Mentally this season, the Hawks have shown their commitment to the process and avoiding bad habits when playing to 21-0 victories or closer 4-3 and 5-2 wins. Sheridan most recently defeated the Gillette Wild 6-3 to end a stretch of three games in three days with a 17-1 overall record and sole possession of first place in the Frontier Division and the league.

Downie said the Americans outworked the Hawks last year, catching the team flat-footed to start the playoff series, but this year’s Sheridan group has familiarized with and prided itself on a hardworking style of play supported by a more skilled roster compared to last season.

Three forwards — Cummings, Billings and Justin Schwartzmiller — boast NA3HL top-10 point totals while five Hawks claim the top-five spots for best plus-minus rating in the league.

The Americans will counter with forward Alex Jackson and Jake Hayes who are the 13th and 14th best point-getters in the league, respectively, with 33 points apiece. Goaltender Trever Mellen sits as the 13th best goalie in the league with a 2.37 goals against average and .933 save percentage.

Regardless of Sheridan and Great Falls’ skill, Scheib and assistant coach Chad Bailey are tasked with managing the health and stamina of the Hawks as they reach the half-way point of the season.

Working on improving Sheridan’s penalty kill, as the Wild scored four times on the man-advantage last weekend, was overshadowed by the three-game workload last week — the Hawks started this week with pond hockey and two lighter practices before they “battle” at practice Thursday and travel Friday.

The strategy will hopefully help Sheridan maintain its No. 1 spot as Great Falls sits just one point behind the Hawks, though the Montana team has played five more games.

“It doesn’t matter if we’re playing the first-place team or the last-place team,” Scheib said, “We’re getting every team’s best because we’re at the top.”

Though the 10 returners remember the loss they suffered at the Great Falls IcePlex, 19 Hawks players didn’t experience the defeat and only eight skaters return for the Americans for Friday and Saturday’s rematch.

“It’s a brand new year,” Scheib said. “We’re going to go in there and expect to win two games.”

“There’s a different feel this year,” Billings said. “There’s a lot of new guys, and they don’t know what to expect but the returners want to go there and beat them in their barn.”

Puck drop against the Americans is at 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday.

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