Blast, Wave open MISL finals tonight

Top 2 teams' stats point to tight best-of-5 series


April 23, 2004|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,SUN STAFF

Already, the Blast and the Milwaukee Wave have a difference of opinion. Their MISL championship series doesn't begin until tonight in Milwaukee, but the two sides can't agree on something as basic as determining who the favorite is.

"They're the defending champions," said Keith Tozer, coach of the No. 1-seeded Wave. "When you want to prove where you stand in the league, you do it by playing the defending champs.

"If the Lakers or the Yankees return to the championship finals the year after winning it, I don't think the team they're facing is the favorite. The Blast is the returning champion. They have the deepest roster. They're the favorite, and we're the underdog."

A year ago as the sixth seed, the Blast rallied from a 12-4 third-period deficit in Game 3 of the best-of-three title series at Milwaukee's U.S. Cellular Arena to capture an unexpected championship - its first since the original Blast won the title in the 1983-84 season.

But even though Baltimore upgraded its roster and battled Milwaukee to the final game of the regular season to determine which would have the better record and the top seed, in the eyes of the No. 2-seeded Blast, Milwaukee is the favorite.

"They've been the best team all season," said Blast defender Billy Nelson. "They have the best record. They have the home-field advantage. It seems like they have all the advantages going into the finals."

Though the Wave won three of four from the Blast in the regular season, the teams are evenly matched. For every advantage held by one team, the other side has a rebuttal.

Milwaukee's goalie, Dan Green, has the league's best goals-against average (4.02), but Blast goalie Scott Hileman has the most wins (24). The Blast has the most powerful offense (241 goals), but the Wave has the game's strongest defense (161 goals allowed).

Milwaukee's Greg Howes is easily the most productive point scorer with 57 goals and 85 points, but the Blast counters with three players among the top 10 scorers - Chile Farias, Denison Cabral and Guiliano Celenza.

And the Blast has matured defensively through the season, holding the opposition to three or fewer goals in three of the past four games. And its offense, with the additions of Farias, Chris Handsor and David Bascome, has been brilliant.

"Milwaukee has a good goalie, and they play a very organized defense," Handsor said. "But it is going to be very difficult for them. Because of how strong our goal scorers are, they can't focus on just one of our forwards. Anyone on our team is capable of scoring two, three or four goals."

There is not much to choose between the clubs when it comes to special teams, either. Milwaukee scores on 50 percent of its power plays, and the Blast connects 49.3 percent of the time. In penalty killing, the Blast has a slight edge, stopping its opponents 63.8 percent of the time to the Wave's 57.6 percent.

In Milwaukee, where Tozer has blended Green and nine other new players, the coach is keeping his team's game plan to himself.

"We're preparing a game plan," Tozer said. "Then we're going to go out, execute and perform. It's plain and simple, black and white."

In its last practice before leaving for Milwaukee, the Blast worked hard on denying corner kicks and at sticking with the players attacking the team's goal.

"We've got to control the balls coming off the boards on both sides of the box," Hileman said . "But you can debate whether it's defense or offense that wins a championship. All I know is that, at the end of the day, heart will, for sure."

Asked if there is a bottom line, just one aspect of the coming series that could make the difference in the outcome, Blast coach Tim Wittman shook his head and laughed.

"I wish it was that simple," he said. "There is no one thing. You can't say it's defense, because if I get all five of my guys behind the ball all night and they don't score, we still have to come up with some offense. There's always more to it than just one thing."

But Tozer concluded the outcome of the series will come down to one thing - "who has the best game plan and who executes it best."

MISL finals

Blast vs. Wave

Tonight: at Milwaukee, 8:35 Tomorrow: at Milwaukee, 8:35

May 1: at Baltimore, 7:35

*May 2: at Baltimore, 6:05

*May 8: at Milwaukee, 8:35

*-if necessary

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