Blast set sights on third straight MASL crown, open playoffs Thursday against Syracuse

The track record bodes well for the Blast as they begin their quest for a third straight Major Arena Soccer League championship with an Eastern Division finals series against the Syracuse Silver Knights.

The Blast’s all-time record against the Silver Knights is 26-6 (13-3 marks both home and away), and they are 2-0 against them in playoffs, the most recent win coming in the 2015-16 season.

But not so fast.

When the Blast open the best-of-three series Thursday in Syracuse — game time set for 7:05 p.m. — they’ll expect a significant test.

This season, the Blast won the first three games against the Silver Knights, but all were by one goal. On Sunday, with nothing to play for, the Silver Knights claimed a 6-4 win in the regular-season finale.

The Silver Knights have a savvy group of veterans hungry for it to be their turn. Joey Tavernese (28 goals, 26 assists, 54 points) leads an offense that also includes Slavisa Ubiparipovic, Kenardo Forbes and Bo Jelovac. Goalie Andrew Coughlin is among league leaders with 13 wins.

“We’ve always had a tremendous amount of respect for them and the quality players they have,” said Blast coach Danny Kelly, who noted the Blast’s triple-overtime win against the Silver Knights in Game 1 of the 2015-16 playoff series. “They have special players and i don’t think you can completely stop them, but we have to limit their production. It’s a stiff challenge, but this is why we play and we look forward to going to Syracuse and getting a win.”

The Blast counter with their balanced attack led by captain and leading scorer Tony Donatelli, Vini Dantas and Andrew Hoxie. Every Blast postseason run has featured players emerging to provide an added spark and midfielder Jonatas Melo and forward Juan Pereira — both in their third seasons — are prime candidates.

“Syracuse is really good and a very familiar team for us,” Melo said. “The key for us it to play the way we’ve been playing and that’s playing hard and doing everything coach has been talking to us about. There is not many secrets. It’s just working hard, do the little things and be focused on game day.”

Vanzela working hard to return

Blast star goalie William Vanzela, who has been sidelined since Jan. 19 after suffering a torn adductor tendon in his groin, hopes to return at some point in the playoffs, but said he isn’t sure on the timeline.

The six-year veteran, who has been instrumental in the Blast’s three league championships since his arrival, returned to practice this week. Before his injury, Vanzela won 11 games with a 4.18 goals-against average; his .770 save percentage is tops in the league.

“I’ve been working really hard, in therapy three times a day and doing everything I possibly can to be able to play,” he said.

Veteran Joey Kapinos, who was signed immediately after Vanzela’s injury, is 6-3 with a 5.23 goals-against average and .682 save percentage. He’ll likely start in Thursday’s opener at Syracuse.

If Vanzela returns to the starting lineup, expect the team to have Kapinos dressed as the backup.

Home cooking tastes good for Blast

Smaller has turned out to be just fine for the Blast, who moved from Royal Farms Arena to Towson University’s SECU Arena and enjoyed an 11-0 regular-season mark in their new home.

With a shorter playing surface — going from 200 feet of length at Royal Farms to 150 — and fewer seats — 10,500 to 3,800 — the Blast have made the most of the more intimate setting.

“Now that we’re used to it, I think it’s a pretty big advantage for us because the size of the arena compared with the other arenas is so much smaller,” Melo said. “We know what to expect and it’s been good because we can actually feel the crowd being closer to us. We can definitely hear them cheering for us and encouraging us and that gives us more energy. It’s been great to play at home, always a special feeling, and hopefully we can go through the all the playoffs undefeated at home.”

A big win off the field

On Monday’s day off, Blast players teamed with Fogo de Chão Brazilian Steakhouse to make for a special afternoon for area children battling cancer.

In conjunction with Gold in Fight, a foundation that supports families with children battling cancer, the children spent the first part of the day with the Blast at the team’s training facility in Parkville. After, they were treated to lunch at Fogo de Chão with players serving as waiters.

“The whole point is to have some fun with the kids and give them a great day. It’s very exciting,” said Vanzela, who initiated the event.

Quick hits

In their 22-game regular season, the Blast played in 13 one-goal games and came away with 10 wins. ...The average home attendance was 3,400. … Donatelli was the Blast’s leading scorer in the regular season with 22 goals and 21 assists for 43 points, ninth in the league… Defender Pat Healey finished second in the league with 43 blocked shots.

glenn.graham@baltsun.com

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