Looking to end its first two-game losing streak of the season and solidify its grasp on first place in the MISL's Eastern Division, the Blast last night figured to have the ideal opponent in the Cleveland Force.
But facing a team that hadn't won in Baltimore since April 2002, the Blast struggled to find the net until David Bascome and Tarik Walker broke a tie with back-to-back goals within 11 seconds of each other midway through the fourth quarter, then held on for a 5-4 win before 8,849 at 1st Mariner Arena.
"This was big. This was a good one for us in what could have been a very easy loss tonight," said Blast coach Tim Wittman. "You don't want to lose three in a row, especially heading toward the playoffs."
The victory had extra significance for the Blast (19-8), which extended its divisional lead to two games when St. Louis defeated second-place Philadelphia, 8-3.
It was the Blast's fourth straight win over the Force this season. The teams will meet again today (3:05) in Cleveland.
With the game tied at 3, the Blast took command with two straight goals. The first came with 7:53 left when Chile Farias sent a pass in to Bascome, whose shot bounced over the head of goalie Jim Larkin and into the net.
Moments later, Walker scored into an empty net to extend the lead to two.
"They started attacking more, and that opened it up for us," said Blast forward Giuliano Celenza.
Cleveland (8-17) cut it to a goal with 1:51 left but couldn't tie despite pulling its goalie.
Five players scored for the Blast, which got on the scoreboard midway through the first quarter when Denison Cabral got the ball near the corner, put a move on his defender and fired a cross in front to Lee Tschantret, who sent the ball in with his left foot.
After missing a handful of chances to extend the lead, however, the Blast lost it when Cleveland's John Ball used the back of his heel to send a pass in front, from where Braeden Cloutier put it away high to tie the game at 1.
It didn't take the Blast long, however, to regain momentum. Just 2:49 into the second quarter, it got a break when the Force's Fred DeGand was whistled for elbowing in the box, and Danny Kelly - whose likeness graced bobblehead dolls given to the crowd - capitalized by beating Larkin to his left on the penalty kick.
The Blast outshot Cleveland 14-7 in the first half, but went into the locker room at halftime with only a 2-1 lead.
After briefly preserving that lead with defense - saving a potential goal when defender Billy Nelson headed away Joel Bailey's floating shot in front of the net - the Blast surrendered the lead on Ball's second goal, this one unassisted. It was Ball's 400th career point.
Celenza and Bailey then scored to make it 3-3.
Cleveland 1 0 1 2 - 4
Blast 1 1 1 2 - 5
First quarter - Cleveland, Cloutier (Ball), 14:47; Blast, Tschantret (Cabral), 7:54; Penalties -None. Second quarter - Blast, Kelly (unassisted), 2:49. Penalties - Cleveland, DeGand, elbowing. 2:49. Third quarter - Cleveland, Ball (unassisted), 5:04; Blast, Celenza (unassisted ), 13:56. Penalties - None. Fourth quarter - Cleveland, Bailey (Guren), 3:28; Dore (Edgerton), 13:09. Blast, Bascome (Farias), 7:53; Blast, Walker (unassisted), 8:04. Penalties - Cleveland, Ball, misconduct, 9:21. Shots on goal - Blast 21; Cleveland 22. Power plays - Blast 1-for-1, Cleveland 0-for-0. Goalkeepers - Blast, Hileman, 9 saves. Cleveland, Larkin, 10 saves. A - 8,849.
Matchup: Blast (19-8) vs. Cleveland Force (8-17)
Site: Cleveland State University Convocation Center
Time: 3:05 p.m.
Radio: WCBM (680 AM)
Outlook: The Force, having trouble winning everywhere this season, has a 5-8 record at home entering today's second meeting in less than 24 hours with the Blast. Cleveland has plummeted deep into last place in the Eastern Division with a punchless team that is virtually playing out the string.
- Bill Free