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BLIZZARD SEASON COMES DOWN TO CRUNCH TIME BUFFALO TRIES TO WIPE THE SLATE CLEAN AGAINST CLEVELAND IN FIRST ROUND OF PLAYOFFS

On paper, the Buffalo Blizzard has little chance against the Cleveland Crunch in their best-of-three National Professional Soccer League playoff series.

But, as both coaches point out, regular-season statistics have no bearing on playoff results as the postseason gets under way tonight in Memorial Auditorium (7:30 p.m., Radio 1400).

"You don't win anything on paper," said Gary Hindley, coach of the defending champion Crunch. "It doesn't matter what happened during the year or in the other 21 games (over the past three seasons). It's really immaterial at this point."

"The (Buffalo) guys are ready to play," said Blizzard coach Jim May. "If we do the things we want to do correctly, I think we've got a good shot of beating them."

Still, the numbers compiled by the Crunch in the six regular-season games are daunting.

Cleveland took the series, 5-1, and led every imaginable category. Buffalo's lone victory was a squeaker that wasn't decided until almost 12 minutes into overtime.

Cleveland's roster includes three NPSL superstars who have again enjoyed spectacular seasons.

Crunch forward Hector Marinaro led the league in scoring (255 points), total goals (99), two-point goals (81), restart goals (23) and shots (378). He also was in the top five in three-point goals (11) and assists (53).

His linemate, Zoran Karic, was second in scoring (241 points) and led the league in assists (96). He also was in the top five in total goals (78), one-point goals (19) and shots (340).

And goalkeeper Otto Orf, the Elma native, was first in keeper assists (19), second in wins (22), second in saves (510), fourth in playing time (1,804 minutes), and seventh in points-against average (13.47).

So why have Buffalo players been walking around with the attitude expressed by defender Michael DiNunzio when he told the recent Blizzard Boosters Club dinner, "We're dying to play Cleveland. We'd all like to play 'em tomorrow. We're dying to beat 'em. We know we can beat 'em."?

"If we can beat Cleveland, we can win the whole thing," forward Paul Dougherty told the same group. "If we put our minds to it, we can be the best team in it."

For starters, the Blizzard has some pretty solid excuses for its five losses to Cleveland, four of which came when all-star forward Rudy Pikuzinski was either absent or not in top condition.

Pikuzinski injured his knee in the first loss (21-14 at Cleveland) on the chaotic opening night in the team's first game under since-departed coach Peter Skouras.

Pikuzinski missed the next seven games and didn't return until Dec. 5, when Cleveland won, 17-5 at the Aud. He was out sick for the next loss on March 3 (22-13 at Cleveland).

The final two defeats (18-16 at Buffalo and 22-14 at Cleveland without Pikuzinski) were meaningless games played after the Crunch and the Blizzard had sewn up their playoff spots by finishing first and fourth, respectively, in the American Division. Both games were tied in the fourth quarter.

"Even though with him (Pikuzinski) not playing, we didn't do badly against them in spots," said May. "We pretty much accomplished a lot of what we wanted to accomplish towards the end of the year. We were trying some different things with them to see what we did."

May said tonight's strategy probably will be to assign certain defenders to shadow Marinaro and Karic. The team also will try to limit Orf's chances to throw the long outlet pass.

"The key is not to give Otto too many easy balls back to him. He's very good with his hands and immediately he'll be up throwing the counter at you. So you want to make sure you're hitting a good ball at him, something he can't handle real clean," May said.

May also has been drilling his club in defending against Cleveland's potent free-kick formations and cutting down on fouls that lead to free kicks.

"We need to attempt to not give them the restarts in the first place," he said. "When we do give them to them, we've got to make every effort possible not to let them score."

"I think its going to be a tough series," said Buffalo forward Andrew Crawford. "I think it has a definite possibility of going three games."

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