One of the most telling and authoritative moments came 36 seconds into the fourth quarter for the Cleveland Crunch.
That's when defender Oscar Draguicevich's shot from atop the three-point arc sealed the Blast's fate by putting the Crunch up by 12 points en route to a 28-18 win in front of 4,013 last night at Baltimore Arena.
The victory gave the Crunch a 1-0 lead in the best-of-three series in the American Conference finals. The teams will be in Cleveland for Game 2 on Sunday and Game 3, if necessary, on Tuesday.
Draguicevich applied the finishing touch, but he was by no means the star of the game. That distinction went to Hector Marinaro, who once again showed why he is the league's premier player.
Marinaro had six goals, all two-pointers, with two assists. The goals came from different angles, from off the boards and found every sector of the goal.
"First round, I couldn't score to save my life," Marinaro said. "Tonight, everything went in. It's hard to play catch-up. Every time they scored, we scored."
Marinaro could exchange that "we" for "I". He scored three of his goals in a row, almost singlehandedly taking over the game for a five-minute stretch.
He put in the first and most important goal of the sequence at 4: 38 of the third period on a header off a 70-foot pass from goalkeeper Otto Orf, beating Scott Hileman to the near side and putting the Crunch up 19-14.
That goal ended a seven-point rally by the Blast that started at the end of the first half and continued into the third quarter.
Marinaro then hit the game's next two goals to put the Crunch up 23-14 heading into the fourth.
"Hector and Zoran [Karic] were on top of their games, hitting the target," Blast coach Kevin Healey said. "It's very disappointing because we know that we didn't play well, defensively in particular."
That was true from the start. Four minutes into the game, Blast midfielder Danny Kelly's errant pass hit Shawn Boney right outside the three-point arc with Hileman nowhere near the net. Boney put in the easy shot, and Marinaro scored his first of the night four minutes later to put the Crunch up 5-0.
"When Karic and Marinaro are playing like that -- that's why they're the two best players in the league," Crunch coach Bruce Miller said.
"In the playoffs, there are things that you need. You need good goalkeeping, good journeymen to get you close. Then you need your stars to come play. And that's what happened tonight."
The Blast did have a number of chances on offense, and capitalized midway through the first quarter when Mark Thomas put home a pass from Paul Wright, then scored again on a shootout to close the Crunch lead to 5-3 going into the second period.
But Marinaro answered, scoring his second goal two minutes in, then setting up Karic at 3: 43 of the period to put Cleveland up 9-3.
The Crunch would eventually open a 17-7 lead in the period before Blast forward Tarik Walker and Thomas scored two- and three-point goals, respectively, to cut the lead to 17-12. Thomas' three-pointer gave him his second cycle of the season.
"We got within range, and in the second half we got it close," Thomas said. "Things were going our way, but they went on a spurt. They're explosive. They have a good team. Hector had a great game. Whether you want to call it a defensive lapse or whatever, they outplayed us."
Blast defender Lance Johnson scored 1 1/2 minutes into the third period, right before Marinaro's three straight goals.
That led to a rare fourth quarter at home for the Blast in which it had to take some uncommon chances. Healey pulled Hileman with six minutes left and the Blast down by 12, leaving them as big a hill to climb as they've faced that late in the game all season.
The Blast got the deficit to eight with under five minutes left, but Kelly was called for an intentional handball, leading to a Karic penalty-kick goal that finished the scoring.
"The later the game got, we had to take some chances," Healey said. "I'm trying to win the game. I'm not worried about keeping the score close. A couple of times they made us pay for it."
So now the Blast must regroup and somehow find a way to contain Marinaro and beat a team that has won five of the six meetings between the team this season. The defending-champion Crunch has won 11 of its last 13 games overall, and now is one game away from going to the finals for the fourth time in five years.