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Blast feels ready for showdown with Syracuse despite 4-4 finish to the regular season

In reaching the championship series in each of the past five seasons, the Blast has been able to maintain a standard no team in professional indoor soccer can match.

Despite having gone 4-4 in its last eight Major Arena Soccer League regular-season games, the Blast, which finished 15-4 as Eastern Division champions, doesn't see that changing as it primes for another extended playoff run.

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The quest begins in Friday's Eastern Division championship series opener against the Syracuse Silver Knights, who defeated the Detroit Waza Flo in the opening round, with game time set for 7:35 p.m. at Royal Farms Arena. The teams will travel to Syracuse on Sunday for Game 2, with a deciding mini-game immediately afterward if the series is tied. It was the Silver Knights who handed the Blast its first loss, 3-2, to start the rough patch on Jan. 24, the first time the Blast had lost to an Eastern Division rival in two years in the MASL. Afterward, the Blast lost three games to the Missouri Comets by a combined four goals.

"We know those games that we lost we could have won — it's not like we got beat pretty bad. They were all close games on a couple mistakes we made. I think when the playoffs come those mistakes won't happen, so we'll be ready," said Blast forward Lucas Roque.

Blast coach Danny Kelly believes his team is better equipped for the postseason following its uncharacteristically average end to the season. He's emphasizing the losses to the Comets to show how the small details can make the difference with some practice time last week used as a valuable refresher course of the basics.

"I've always said we're a continued work in progress," Kelly said.

"This is what we're going to face and these are situations we need to learn from — mistakes cost you games. Am I concerned that we went [4-4 over the last eight] games? No. I know on any given day we can beat anybody. Those games we lost, I think, were more beneficial in terms of us losing them and the reasons why we lost them than potentially winning them."

The Blast enters the playoffs comforted by the fact it has the league's best defense, long its trademark. Goalie William Vanzela went 15-4 with a 2.95 goals-against average, allowing 1.5 fewer goals than the next best keeper in the league. His .791 save percentage also is considerably better than the rest. Veteran defender Pat Healey leads the league with 43 blocked shots and brings strong leadership.

"We know if anything breaks down, we still have a good chance of stopping it. If it's not our midfielders or defenders stopping it, William will make a great save," Healey said. "We know we're not going to give up a lot of goals, we've set that as a standard. So knowing that, you don't have to go in and score eight or nine goals. That gives a forward who may miss a chance or two [to stay relaxed], it's not a big deal."

It wasn't a coincidence that the team's slide came when forward Vini Dantas was lost for the season with a toe injury that required surgery. Dantas was enjoying a breakthrough second season, with 20 goals and 10 assists in 12 games, before being injured in the loss at Syracuse.

Plenty of offensive weapons remain for the Blast, led by Tony Donatelli and Roque.

Donatelli took over as the team's leading scorer with 17 goals and 17 assists, while Roque, who has been hampered with a hamstring issue for much of the season, has 19 goals and seven assists. He should be close to full speed after treatment and rest the past two weeks.

"It's got to be by committee," said Kelly. "Do we miss Vini? Sure. Are we going to use that as an excuse? Absolutely not.We need to commit to what we're doing: play good team defense and create turnovers. I think it would be more of a problem if we're not creating chances opportunities, but that hasn't been an issue. We have to be more clinical in our finishing and hitting the target. It comes to finishing your chances."

The Blast has won seven league titles and six since 2003, but it's 1-4 in championship series over the past five years.

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