Psst. Want to hear a secret?
The Buffalo Blizzard is one of the hottest teams in the National Professional Soccer League.
Yes, that Buffalo Blizzard. The team with the 12-15 overall record that's been in fifth and last place in the American Conference most of the season.
It's true. The Blizzard is hot.
Buffalo goes into tonight's game against the Wichita Wings (7:30, HSBC Arena, Radio 1520) riding a 5-2 streak that started after the club sank to a franchise low (7-13) at midseason on Jan. 21.
Only one team in the league, the defending champion Milwaukee Wave, has posted a better record in its past seven games. In addition, the Blizzard has allowed only 13 points in its last two games and has trimmed its points-against average to 13.0 per game, third-lowest in the NPSL.
And it's all been done with a short-handed squad depleted by injuries. Coach Paul Kitson said he hasn't submitted a full lineup of 16 healthy players since Dec. 16, the day rookie defender Matt Tanzini suffered a season-ending knee injury in Milwaukee. Last Saturday at Philadelphia, Kitson used only 11 field players, down from 12 the previous game, to score a 13-8 win over the conference leader.
"Over the last three or four games, I've barely had just enough line changes per position," Kitson said. "It's definitely an opportunity for the young players who probably wouldn't have seen as much playing time as they have if we'd have had healthy guys out there."
"I don't want to say we've gotten down to the bottom of the barrel, but we've gotten down to where everyone has to play," said goalkeeper and co-captain Bryan "Goose" Finnerty, who has posted a stellar 10.64 points-against average in the last seven games.
"I think we went through a stage where some guys were getting play time that didn't expect it. And so they'd show up one game and not show up the next. . . . But now everyone realizes that you're playing for wins and losses, not for positions right now. And it's a difference. It may sound strange, but once players realize they're not going to be yanked every shift or that they're going to be able to sustain making a mistake or two (they play better).
"Danny (co-captain Barber) and I especially remind those young guys that this is probably the opportunity of a lifetime, to be able to have this much play time without the threat of having every shift be your last, in terms of your play. So go out and have fun and enjoy it and contribute to what it takes to help the team win. That's what we've had. When those guys do that, then your senior players are the ones that can come win the game," Finnerty continued.
"It's a long season, it's a long haul," said Kitson. "It's not so much how you start the season as it is how well you're able to finish. If you don't dig yourself too big of a hole, you can easily get a good run towards the end."
With 13 games left in the regular season, the Blizzard is two games behind the Cleveland Crunch (14-13) in the battle for the last playoff berth. The Crunch and Blizzard meet three more times, starting Sunday in Cleveland.
"It seems as if the teams that had really taken off, namely Baltimore and Philadelphia, have found some way or other to come back to the pack," Kitson said. "There are just five games in the loss column from the cellar to first place. . . . It's a long season and, by all means, it's not over right now."
Wichita (11-14 and in third place in the National Conference) handed Buffalo its worst beating of the season in a 24-7 game on Dec. 28 in Kansas. The Wings are led by high-scoring forwards Dino Delevski and Braeden Cloutier, who combined for four goals (three on restarts) in the Feb. 14 All-Star game at the arena.
"They're very complete players, they both defend and they both go forward," said Buffalo defender Carlos Zavala, an All-Star starter. "But I believe we're going to match up very well against them. Our veteran players are going to make sure they are well taken care of. And it's not going to be the same thing as it was in the All-Star game, that's for sure."
Zoran Karic, the NPSL superstar who has been out of action since being released by the Cleveland Crunch between seasons, has signed with the Kansas City Attack. Karic is the league's No. 2 career scorer (1,627 points) and holds a record 159-game point-scoring streak.
Shawn Boney, the NPSL's biggest man (6-7, 265) was traded from the Detroit to the Philadelphia Kixx for Domenic Mobilio.
Who's hot: Goalkeeper Bryan Finnerty has allowed only 13 points in the last two games
Record last 5: 3-2
Points per game: 12.3
Points allowed per game: 13.0
Injuries: Eduardo Sebrango (knee), Mali Walton (knee), Chris Clarke (ankle), Tim Leonard (ankle)
Fast fact: Allows fewest shots (30 per game) and has third-best defense (13 points per game) in the NPSL
Who's hot: Forward Dino Delevski has scored nine three-point goals, No. 2 in NPSL.
Record last 5: 1-4
Points per game: 13.9
Points allowed per game: 13.7
Injuries: Jason Dunn
Fast fact: Has NPSL's best penalty-killing record (78.1 percent).