RICHFIELD, Ohio -- The Baltimore Blast players could be kicking themselves this morning, for after taking a two-goal lead over the Cleveland Crunch last night, their defense collapsed in a 10-4 loss.
The Blast, in losing for the third straight game and for the second straight night on the road, fell to 16-20, nine games behind the league-leading San Diego Sockers with four games to play. In the fight for the fourth and last playoff spot, Baltimore is in fifth place, half a game ahead of the Tacoma Stars and one game behind Cleveland (16-18).
The Blast, 6-13 on the road this season, and 1-9 on the road since Dec. 27, was burned by Cleveland forward Hector Marinaro, who had four goals and one assist. The Crunch's 10 goals tied the mark for the most goals scored against the Blast this season -- the St. Louis Storm beat the Blast, 10-6 on Dec. 27, the Dallas Sidekicks won, 10-2, on Jan. 17, and San Diego won, 10-7, eight days ago.
After Joe Koziol and Rod Castro gave the Blast a 2-0 lead in the first period, the Blast didn't score again until Kevin Sloan scored at 14:53 of the third quarter after seven straight Cleveland goals. Sloan scored again with 1:41 to play in the game to account for the final score.
In a playoff atmosphere before a crowd of 8,760 at Richfield Coliseum, both teams played conservatively early in the first period, content to drop back on defense. But at the 8:20 mark, midfielder Koziol gave the Blast a 1-0 lead when he took a pass from goalie Cris Vaccaro, crossed into Crunch territory down the right sideline and kicked a high, hard riser that whistled into left corner of the net past diving goalie P.J. Johns. It was Koziol's 17th goal of the season.
Just 2:39 later, the Blast made it 2-0 on Castro's 19th of the season, a low liner from close in on the right side. Cleveland responded with several shots at Vaccaro, the best being one from the left side that Vaccaro stopped with his body.
The Crunch broke through at 13:59 to make it 2-1 when Michael King passed from the right boards to the crease for Marinaro, who smashed it past Vaccaro. It was Marinaro's 40th goal this season and marked the fifth consecutive season he has scored at least 40.
At 8:55 of the second period, two Crunch shots hit the posts in front of Vaccaro, who made another save off the right post at 5:38. But that was a sign of things to come as the Blast defense faltered in front of Vaccaro and Cleveland scored three goals in the next 1:29 for a 4-2 lead.
Zoran Karic made it 2-2 on a breakaway goal at 10:12, when he waited for Vaccaro to commit and beat him to his left. Marinaro scored his second at 10:41 when Gregg Willin found him alone on the left side for an easy goal behind Vaccaro.
David Hoggan made it 4-2 when Michael King's shot rebounded left to Hoggan, who hammered it into the right corner behind Vaccaro, who had virtually no chance on any of the three goals.
Cleveland went up 5-2 just before the half when Gino DiFlorio scored on a shootout goal after a foul on Ali Kazemaini while the Blast had a 5-on-3 power play. The Blast did not score with the advantage, then Cleveland's Rudy Pikuzinski scored his 15th of the season, at 8:39 of the third period, to make it 6-2.
Vaccaro went into the game ranked third among MSL goalies with a 5.28 goals-against average. Baltimore has played two more games than Cleveland in the fight for the fourth and final playoff spot, and the schedule may favor Cleveland, which plays four of its remaining six games at home, where it has won its past three and nine of its past 10 going into the game.
NOTES: Baltimore is off until Thursday, when it plays host to St. Louis at 7:05 p.m., then plays at Dallas the next night. The Blast ends its regular-season home schedule the following Sunday, with a 2:35 p.m. game against the Sidekicks. . . . The Blast was coming off a 5-4 overtime loss in Wichita on Friday, its second consecutive loss. Baltimore is 1-4 in overtime games this season, the lone victory an 8-7 win at Cleveland on Dec. 13. . . . The Blast was 1-8 on the road going into the game. . . . The Blast beat Cleveland 7-5 in Baltimore nine days ago, rallying from a &L three-goal deficit to take a 4-2 series lead. The two teams are not scheduled to meet again in the regular season. . . . The Crunch played without D Chico Moreira, who had surgery on his left Achilles' tendon last Wednesday and is out for the season. . . . Blast F Jean Harbor had scored seven goals in his past eight games going into the Cleveland game. . . . The Blast played without M Mike Stankovic, who has had surgery on his right knee.