Crunch time comes early and much more often for the Buffalo Blizzard this season.
After playing the archrival Cleveland Crunch only twice a year for the past three campaigns, Blizzard owner John Bellanti spent the offseason lobbying National Professional Soccer League officials for more games between the traditional Lake Erie foes.
Bellanti got his way. And how.
Thanks to a new divisional realignment, tonight's Marine Midland Arena clash with the Crunch (7, Radio 107.7) marks the first of eight -- count 'em eight -- games this season between the Blizzard and its ancient nemesis, the NPSL's defending champion.
Buffalo coach George Fernandez said he knows just what to expect from the renewal of the series, which Cleveland leads, 21-16. That record includes an 8-4 mark in the playoffs, when the Crunch eliminated Buffalo four straight times from 1993-96.
"They're going to come in here to embarrass us. They're very cocky, very arrogant," said Fernandez, a former Crunch defender who owns a championship ring from 1994, the first of Cleveland's three titles in the past six years.
"You can be that way when you're the best," said Fernandez, who maintains that despite an unusually slow start this season Cleveland "is still the best team in the league."
On paper, the Crunch's record is far from best at the moment, however.
Plagued by injuries to several starters, including superstars Hector Marinaro and Zoran Karic, Cleveland -- like the Blizzard (5-8) -- is off to its worst start in eight years in the NPSL.
After Tuesday's 30-21 loss at Montreal, the Crunch checks in with a 5-10 record.
Most surprisingly, Cleveland is only 1-9 on the road.
"They went through this last year," Fernandez said.
"They started out very slow. . . . They beat us here at home (20-13 on Feb. 7) after we beat them (14-10) there the night before. They went on to win like 10 in a row.
"That's what they're capable of doing. We can't take anything for granted. We're still trying to dig out of a hole," Fernandez said.
"It's going to be a good challenge," said Buffalo forward Doug Miller, who owns two (1994 and 96) Cleveland championship rings. . . . "They're the champion until someone else beats them and we're going to have to go through them to reach our goal."
Miller's Blizzard-record eight-goal, 14-point performance Sunday against Wichita goalkeeper Gary Germaine rocketed him from 17th to ninth in the NPSL scoring race. Only two others -- Marinaro (12) and St. Louis' Mark Moser (nine) -- have ever scored more goals in a game.
Here's how Miller did it:
1. Two points, restart: 11:48 of first quarter, makes score 4-0. Right-footer from about 44 feet out on left wing off long pass from Carlos Zavala.
2. One point, shootout: 3:04 second, 5-0. Second-effort right-footer from wide on right side.
3. Two points, power play: 3:57 second, 7-0. Left-footer from right point off pass from Zavala.
4. One point, shootout: 14:15 second, 8-3. Right-footer from 40 feet.
5. Two points: 5:24 third, 12-3. Left-footer from crease at left side of net. Andrew Crawford missed long pass from Danny Barber, but headed ball to Miller after it bounced off back boards.
6. Two points, restart: 12:05 third, 14-7. Right-footer from 43 feet. Second touch after pass from Barber.
7. Two points: 12:31 third, 16-7. Left-footer from 25 feet off long breakaway pass from Bobby DiNunzio.
8. Two points: 1:08 fourth, 18-7. Left-footer from 10 feet off back-boards pass from Jim Hesch.