Like escape artist Harry Houdini, and through the modern magic of instant replay, Utica City forward Bo Jelovac slipped his bonds and scored late in the fourth quarter to break a 9-9 tie en route to a 12-9 win over the Baltimore Blast in Game 1 of the Eastern Division Finals Saturday night at SECU Arena.
The Blast had just rallied from a 9-5 deficit and appeared to be going on a power play when the referees had a conference and reversed Fernando Pena’s blue card on Jelovac. The contact, which happened, away from the ball, instead resulted in a free kick for Baltimore. Less than 20 seconds later Jelovac scored on a counter attack to give Utica a 10-9 lead.
Thursday and Friday’s three playoff games were low scoring affairs that produced between seven and nine goals per game. Earlier today the Milwaukee Wave beat the Kansas City Comets 10-3, but that game was 2-2 midway through the third quarter.
The Blast ended their regular season by playing their best defense of the year, but recently lost defenders Marco Nascimento and Elton De Oliveira for the season due to injuries, further compounding the losses of Pat Healey and Nelson Santana to the Harrisburg Heat before the season.
Tonight, Utica came out a little tentative and Jereme Raley scored on a scramble to give the Blast a 1-0 lead at 3:11 of the first quarter and the rest of the quarter was scoreless.
Things escalated quickly, as they say, in the second quarter. Utica tied the game 37 seconds into the period on the first of three straight restart goals (interrupted by a Jamie Thomas goal) that gave City a 3-2 lead. The third restart goal, by Mauricio Salles, was the first of four goals in 2:17, and suddenly Utica had a 6-2 lead that held up through halftime.
“We work diligently, especially once you get into the playoffs, the game comes down to details and you have to limit your mistakes during the run of play, but then special team play becomes a huge factor; free kicks, power plays, power kills and sixth attacker,” said Utica Head Coach Ryan Hall. “We focused the last two weeks just on free kicks and thankfully tonight we executed on all of them. That really springboarded us and gave us momentum in the run of play.”
In the third quarter every time the Blast started to rally, City had an answer. Vini Dantas and Salles exchanged goals to make it 7-3. Dantas scored again followed by a Sam Guernsey goal that electrified the crowd and got the Blast within 7-5, but Salles and Nate Bourdeau scored to push the lead back to four. For Salles, it was his fourth goal of the game.
“Tremendous job by Salles to battle through hamstrings and knee injuries and be able to put the ball in the back of the net,” said Hall, marveling at the 41-year old’s tenacity.
Guernsey would factor in the game again by drawing a penalty and the Blast scored on the power play to cut the deficit to 9-6. The sixth year defender has seen inconsistent playing time in his first year with the Blast. “I play like a holding position,” Guernsey said. “Coach kind of says, ‘Go in here. Go in there.’ When someone goes down I gotta step up and that’s my role on this team.”
In the fourth quarter the Blast drew closer on one-timer goals from Mike Deasel and Tony Donatelli. As the crescendo grew inside SECU Arena, it was Guernsey who tied the game and unleashed pandemonium with his perfect upper 90 bicycle kick goal.
“I’ll be honest every time I do a bike or something crazy like that I shank it,” Guernsey said self-effacingly, “but I guess when it comes down to business I take care of it and it felt so good because all my teammates rallied behind me and I finally got that feeling that I was in the group. It’s really hard with these guys, three championships under their belt, who am I? I’m from Cedar Rapids, you know? So coming in here and having those guys welcome me and scoring a goal like that, they respect that and it gives me goosebumps thinking about the camaraderie that I felt scoring that goal.”
But minutes later, it was Utica back on top after the rescinded blue card. “We were pretty upset,” Guernsey said. “We wanted some review or something. I feel like the refs played a huge part in this game. For him to give a card and to take it back, and for the same guy that got carded to go down and score the goal to go up it bothers me, but what can you do? We just got to go there Monday and kick their ass then.”
Everyone was watching the ball when Jelovac was shown the blue card so in the noisy arena it was hard to know what the penalty call was for, and then why it was overturned.
“One ref said off the ball that Bo shoved the Blast player, the other ref said it wasn’t,” said Hall detailing the explanation he was given. “It was just a bump. They had a long discussion. They ruled that it wasn’t too much of an infraction to warrant a blue card so they reversed it.”
While the Blast had bad injury news, Utica got back leading scorer Slavisa Ubiparipovic, who had missed the last five games. He didn’t score, but he made his presence felt. “Just his leadership,” Hall said. “He’s so calm, cool, and collected on the ball. It might not show up on the stats, but the intangibles that he brings and the calmness when he’s out there not to panic is irreplaceable.”
The teams will head to Utica’s Adirondack Bank Center Monday for Game 2 and the minigame, if necessary. While Hall was pleased with the win, he wasn’t happy to see a four goal lead slip away.
“We knew they weren’t going to quit or lay down,” Hall said. “We do have some inexperienced guys in the back and we allowed Baltimore to dictate the momentum of the game. We allowed them to put pressure on us when we had the ball in their attacking end to drive it all the way back to Andrew (Coughlin) which is the exact opposite of what we wanted to do, so then we have to fight to get out of our own end, made a couple of mistakes and they capitalized. We have to be more disciplined and more confident in playing with the ball and playing out of pressure and not just panicking.”
The Blast famously lost Game 1 at home in two of three series in 2017 and won the championship anyway. Hall is well aware of the Blast’s success with their backs against the wall.
“By no means is the series over,” he says. “There’s still two games to be played. We would like to just wrap it up in one game, but we have to come to play. There’s no way they’re just going to lay down. It’s Baltimore, so it’s going to be a dogfight Monday night.”