SHERIDAN — The scoreboard at the Whitney Rink in the M&M’s Center showed 12:21 left in the third period of the NA3HL Sheridan Hawks’ game against the Gillette Wild Saturday night. In the 7:39 that had already passed in the final frame of the two-game series, the Hawks surrendered three goals to the Wild. The scoreboard showed a 4-3 Sheridan lead — one of the narrowest margins during the Hawks’ dominant 2020-21 season.
Fatigue crept up on the Sheridan players. After returning from their holiday break, the Hawks spent three days skating to get back in shape before traveling to Cody to play the Yellowstone Quake on New Year’s Eve Thursday. The team ended 2020 with a 9-5 win, then rang in the New Year with a 6-3 victory over Gillette Friday.
The week took its toll, and head coach Andy Scheib knew his team needed to refocus through the final 12 minutes of play Saturday. So Scheib called a timeout moments before the referee dropped the puck after the Wild’s third goal, waited for the Hawks to congregate at the bench and said:
“Whoever thinks we’re not going to win this hockey game is out of their minds,” Scheib said. “We’re 16-1. Just relax. Stay out of your head. Play your game. Get pucks deep. Play simple.”
The fans in the M&M’s Center, egged on by the public address announcer, encouraged the Hawks and erupted two minutes later when forward Jacob Cummings beat Wild goaltender Alex Shaults on an abbreviated breakaway.
Cummings has proven to be a dependable presence on Sheridan’s top two lines, leading the North American 3 Hockey League in points with 62 (18 goals, 44 assists) through 17 games played, and celebrated his goal Saturday with arms above his head and a purposeful hit to the glass in front of the limited-capacity crowd.
For the following 10 minutes and change, the Hawks put Gillette back on its heels, forcing the Wild to pull Shaults in the waning minutes for the extra skater. But Hawks defenseman Simon Herz scored an empty-net goal with 28 seconds left to secure the 6-3 victory and extend Sheridan’s winning streak to 16 games.
“It always feels good when we come back from the break and everybody’s relaxed after spending time with family, then getting back to work,” forward Stepan Ruta said.
The Hawks started their holiday break after traveling to Helena and beating the Bighorns 4-3 Dec. 18 and 5-2 Dec. 19.
This past weekend, third-string goaltender Antonio Tarantino earned the 9-5 win over the Quake Thursday, No. 2 goaltender Luke Fundator played the majority of the two games against Gillette and Scheib noted the Hawks’ third and fourth lines outperformed the team’s quintessential goal scorers during stretches throughout the three games.
Cummings finished with one goal and 10 assists and forward and linemate Blake Billings had three goals and three assists in the three games. In a further testament to the Hawks’ depth, six skaters scored the team’s nine goals Thursday against the Quake.
Ruta ended a three-game scoreless drought with a goal both Friday and Saturday. Forward Zach Brydges returned from injury to finish with a hat trick Friday. Newcomer Tony Brings scored twice in the second period Saturday and assisted Cummings on the breathing-room goal to finish Sheridan’s three games with seven points (5g, 2a).
“Our third- and fourth-line guys stepped up and did what they were supposed to do,” Scheib said. “They competed hard, and they got the momentum back for us. … If we have games like that where our best players aren’t playing their best and our other guys are playing their best, that’s what makes a good hockey team.”
Starting 2021 with a 17-1 record and first place in the Frontier Division and in the league leaves little room for complaints from Sheridan.
However, Scheib notes the team’s discipline could improve, as four of Gillette’s six goals Friday and Saturday came on the power play. The Hawks fell prey to the Wild’s division-best 70.6% power play, while their 73.8% penalty kill falls to 19th of 31 teams in the NA3HL.
“Stupid penalties are going to come back and bite you,” Scheib said. “To break it down, we haven’t worked on power play or penalty kill that much. We still have new guys, and we’re trying to figure it out by mixing up the lines a little bit, but it’s something we have to address moving forward.”
The head coach said the breakdowns came as a product of fatigue, and when the final horn sounded Saturday, the Hawks swarmed and hugged Fundator while several kissed the goaltender’s helmet as their show of appreciation and a sign of relief.
Sheridan travels to Great Falls to play the Americans Friday and Saturday for the team’s first meetings since the first round of the NA3HL Fraser Cup playoffs which were canceled in March due to COVID-19. Puck drop is at 7:30 p.m. both nights.
“We’re going to get every team’s best game,” Brings said, “So we need to come out with intensity at the first drop of the puck.”