The Blast went 4-0 against the Rochester Lancers in the Major Arena Soccer League's regular season, shutting them out once and scoring 25 points while using plenty of reserves in its last victory on March 1.
The playoffs started Wednesday for the Blast and, taking on the same Lancers, the goals didn't pour in and the stayed in doubt the entire way.
Tony Donatelli scored a go-ahead goal with 8:06 to play in the third quarter and the Blast's trademark defense handled the rest, blanking the Lancers in the entire second half to pull out a gutsy 6-4 win for the Eastern Division title in front of an announced crowd of 5,544 at Royal Farms Arena.
"That's what the playoffs are about. We're used to it — at least half of us our used to it — and it's a good taste for the new guys. It's a huge win," defender Pat Healey said. "We say we can't give up more than three goals — that's our goal, and we held them to two. It just gives us a chance to win the game. You can't rely on outscoring teams but you can rely on your defense and we do that."
Blast goalie William Vanzela finished with sevensaves, while Healey scored the tying goal and led the strong effort in back. The Blast played without veteran forward Max Ferdinand due to a toe injury, but he's expected back on Friday.
The Blast advances to the Eastern Conference championship series and faces the winner of Thursday's Central Division title game between the Milwaukee Wave and Missouri Comets. The series will open in Baltimore on Friday at 7:35 p.m. The two-game series concludes Sunday at the Central Division winner's home turf, and a deciding mini-game will be played immediately after if the series is tied.
This season, the Blast didn't play the Comets, which finished 20-0 and beat Baltimore in last year's Major Indoor Soccer League. The Blast does have two wins over the Wave (13-7) this season.
On Wednesday, the Lancers called timeout with 2:17 to play and brought on Jeremy Ortiz as an extra attacker. The visitors blasted a three-point shot just wide, had another shot blocked by the Blast's Levi Houapeu and then a point-blank shot in front by Joe Tavernese in the closing seconds went high above the goal and down the other end as time expired.
Tied at 4 at the half, the only goal in the second half came with the Blast on the power play. Donatelli, who leads the Blast 18 goals and 19 assists, picked up a loose ball in the left corner and beat goalie Joe Kapinos high to the far post on a difficult angle.
The Blast had plenty of chances to further pad the advantage, but strong play from Kapinos (13 saves) and poor finishing from the home team added anxiety to the closing minutes.
Playoff intensity was present from the start. Just 10 days ago, the Blast beat Rochester, 25-23, in the season finale. The goals didn't come as easy on Wednesday.
"As a coach, you're always wanting more and wanting better," said Blast Danny Kelly, who felt his team started slow because of the 10-day layoff. "As frustrating as the game was at times, we gave up two goals in a playoff game against a team that has some guys that can put the ball in the net, so I'm very happy with getting the win and it was a well-deserved win."
The home team controlled play for most of the first quarter, but could only muster a 2-0 advantage when Diego Zuniga finally broke through with 3:10 left. Veteran Adauto Neto made the goal happen with a quick turn in front that was saved by Kapinos, but Zuniga was left unmarked on the left side for the easy tap-in.
Earlier in the quarter, Neto and defender Onua Obasi had consecutive point-blank shots turned aside by Kapinos to keep the game scoreless.
The Lancers gained confidence and momentum early in the second quarter when Mauricio Salles buried a free kick from the top arc less than two minutes in to tie the game at 2. They claimed the lead less than two minutes later when Brad Vanino volleyed home a ball sent in off the wall by Andrew Hoxie.
The Blast tied the game at 4 when Healey finished a nifty give-and-go with Adriano Dos Santos with 7:21 to play before intermission.