For your consideration: With no previous MASL MVP winners east of Independence, Missouri, I present Harrisburg Heat forward Dominic Francis. Francis, in his fourth season, has scored in all 19 games this year and leads the Heat with 33 goals after his latest hat trick helped the Heat to a crucial 9-5 win over the Baltimore Blast at New Holland Arena Sunday evening.
“That’s not my focus at the minute,” Francis said. “I’ve been with the Heat for a few years and it’s not been the most successful, so right now it’s making sure things are right and make sure we’re in a playoff push and turn this team into a championship team, so I’ve got to put my personal honors aside and work on the team.”
It was Francis’s fifth hat trick of the season and gave the Heat a modern franchise record 12th win on the year. More importantly, it gave the Heat a 2-1 lead in the season series with the Blast and moved Harrisburg (12-7) percentage points ahead of Baltimore (13-8) for the fourth and final playoff spot.
The Blast were playing their third game in less than 48 hours. Friday’s game started almost an hour late after the Orlando SeaWolves suffered a travel delay and the Blast easily won 13-3.
Saturday’s road game in Rochester was less smooth as the Blast needed a Juan Pereira overtime goal to beat the Lancers 6-5 after Baltimore let a 5-2 lead slip away in the fourth quarter.
“They’ve been in games all season long into the third quarter,” said Blast Head Coach Danny Kelly of the Lancers, who came into the game 0-17 with an average margin of defeat of over eight goals per game. “They’re not a bad team. Credit to them. They don’t stop playing and they work hard, so that was a big win for us.
“This is professional. Every win’s a big win especially for us now fighting for a playoff spot. We’ve lost some overtime games this season so it’s good to win one.”
Saturday the Heat picked up a fast and loose 11-8 win against the SeaWolves, who fell to 1-15.
The Heat scored less than a minute into Sunday’s game as Marcel Berry darted in and deflected a Pereira clearing attempt past Blast goalie William Vanzela.
“He’s a hell of a player,” said Heat Head Coach Pat Healey of the rising rookie Berry, “fast as anything, beats guys but I love him, he’s a team guy. Everything he does is about the team, wants to learn, and he’s a team guy and that’s what we’re trying to bring in here. We’re trying to bring in guys who want to buy into it.”
Despite that fast start the teams each added only one goal before halftime with Tony Donatelli scoring for the Blast and Tavoy Morgan spinning in the box to beat Vanzela late in the second quarter to give the Heat a 2-1 lead.
In the third quarter Morgan got past Jereme Raley on the boards and hit a laser from a near-impossible angle to beat Vanzela far post, and 37 seconds later William Eskay played a ball off the boards that hit Baltimore forward Mohamed Ndiaye and went into the Blast’s net to give the Heat a 4-1 lead.
Just over a minute later William Banahene made a great save on a Jamie Thomas shot, but Francis didn’t react to the rebound and Donatelli cruised in to stuff it home. Forty-nine seconds later Andrew Hoxie banged a ball off the boards and Jonatas Melo scored on the rebound to cut the Heat lead to 4-3.
Shortly after, the Blast got their first in a series of blue cards. Ndiaye approached Ty Hall, who cut the ball back and basically fell over Ndiaye’s leg.
The Heat capitalized as Francis got his first goal of the game. Baltimore made their last rush when Vini Dantas scored three minutes later to make it a 5-4 game going into the fourth quarter. Dantas, another MVP candidate had two goals on the night and now has 34 goals and 48 points on the year.
Francis was called for holding early in the fourth quarter, but the Blast could not find the equalizer. “We get a penalty,” Healey said, “I love our mentality about it. ‘It’s OK, we’ll fight it,’ and that hasn’t been an all season thing, that’s been a recent thing and it’s led to good success on special teams. We’ve been good on special teams, especially for a newer team trying to learn. We try to adapt ideas that I want to do, but it’s all through them doing the job.”
At 4:17 Thomas got two minutes for tripping Daniel Villela. On the power play, the Heat showed great ball movement with one-touch passing from Morgan to Villela to Elton De Oliveira, back to Morgan for a goal and Harrisburg’s lead was 6-4. Morgan’s hat trick gave him eight goals in three games this year against Baltimore.
Forty seconds later Berry banked a pass off the boards to a streaking Eskay to make it 7-4. Twenty seconds after that Vanzela came far out of his goal to challenge a 50/50 ball and collided with Morgan setting up a Heat shootout that Francis converted with a cheeky tap in to make it 8-4. The net result of that whirlwind series was two power plays and three goals in 63 seconds.
Later in the quarter Lucas Roque went up for a bicycle kick but De Oliveira headed the ball away and got a boot to the face, setting up another Heat power play.
On that power play Morgan ran into a Raley shoulder block and was laying injured on the floor near the top of the box for 30 seconds, but the officials allowed play to continue even though it was Harrisburg’s ball. The confused Heat finally got the whistle they were looking for when Francis completed his hat trick to make it 9-4.
The MASL usually assigns at least one senior floor referee per game, but in a high profile game with big playoff implications the league had Trey Krell and Josh Wilkens working the floor.
Coming into the game, the Blast had only allowed seven power play goals in 20 games before allowing four on Sunday.
“I think there was some poor officiating to be honest with you,” said Kelly. “Could we have done a better job keeping our discipline with a couple of the yellow cards, yeah, but some of the blue cards I thought were very questionable. I question the referee unit that was handling this game.”
The Heat now have almost two weeks until their next game, which is a rematch with the Blast in Baltimore on March 7. “It’s in our hands we just got to figure out a way to get some wins,” said Healey. “We’re in a good spot, gotta win some games against tough teams, but we’re capable of doing it, but first things first we’ve got Baltimore in two weeks and we’ll be ready.”
Aside from Francis and Morgan’s hat tricks and the team’s strong special teams play, goalkeeper Banahene had another strong game. Banahene was especially good with his hands, keeping rebounds to a minimum. “He knows that if there’s one struggle that he’s had it’s he’s got to hold more balls,” said Healey. “If you don’t hold balls as an indoor keeper it’s going to be a nightmare and I think every goalie goes through that at some point in their career. He’s our number one and he’s number one for a reason.”
Healey liked the Heat’s resilience as they never relinquished the lead when the Blast made their third quarter rally. “They’re going to make runs,” Healey said. “They’re never going to be out of a game, they have too many good players and they’ve seen everything. That’s one thing I joke about with our guys. We haven’t been in certain situations. We gotta learn. It’s about development a lot of times. Baltimore has seen every situation. It’s about getting good habits and they made a run and we responded.”
The Blast only have three games left including Rochester on February 29 and the Milwaukee Wave on March 15.
Three wins will likely get the Blast into the playoffs. Kelly said his team’s focus will be on “continuing to get better. This was a game I thought we played well for good stretches, you know for our third game in three days I thought it was a game we were capable of winning. It didn’t go our way, but every game’s a playoff game for us because we’re still trying to get into the playoffs.”