Dallas wins before 16,824
Reprinted by permission of the author
The Sidekicks, the Heartbreak Kids of the MISL playoffs, were already on an emotional high with a 2-1 lead over Cleveland in the best-of-seven Eastern Divisional finals. And Friday's sellout crowd of 16,824 at Reunion Arena, the first in franchise history, may have pushed them over the top.
For the second time in the series, the Sidekicks scored nine goals and beat the Force, 9-4, to take a 3-1 advantage in the series. The underdog Sidekicks, who upset Baltimore in the first round, can advance to the championship series with a victory in Cleveland on Sunday.
The Sidekicks came out in the third quarter and blew open the game with three goals in the first 7:11. Tatu did not score or assist, but it was his drawing two penalties that set up the first two goals.
Thirty seconds into the second half, Tatu got free on a fast break and Cleveland goalie P.J. Johns came out to the Force redline to trip him. Johns drew a two-minute penalty and sixteen seconds later, James hit Tatu in the face with an elbow to put two Force players in the penalty box.
Doc Lawson converted the five-on-three advantage at 1:25 and, with the Sidekicks still a man up, assisted Mark Karpun to give the Sidekicks a 5-1 lead.
"That was the key,' Tatu said. "I think the four points I scored was not half as important as the two penalties when we scored two goals.'
Cleveland coach Timo Liekoski agreed that Tatu's drawing the two penalties was the key.
"I'm glad you used the word drew,' Liekoski said. "I thought the power plays were the difference. They're playing with a lot of emotion and right now they feel they're the Cinderella team, and it gives them a little extra emotion. They're living off that right now and doing well.'
Midway through the quarter, Smith beat the Force's Paul Kitson on the right side and took a low shot from 35 feet. Karpun stepped over the ball 10 feet in front of the net to screen Johns, and the shot went into the right side for a 6-1 lead, the second time this series the Sidekicks had that lead. The Sidekicks also held a 6-1 lead in Game 2, which they won 9-6.
With under a minute left in the quarter, Karpun beat Johns to a loose ball at midfield, passed to Tatu on the left, and Tatu scored into the vacant net for a 7-1 lead. It was a record six-goal lead for the Sidekicks and all but finished off the Force, sending the record crowd home happy.
"This is what we've worked for, this is what we've dreamed of,' said Gordon Jago, the teary-eyed Sidekicks coach. "It's almost like a fairy tale for me because I always believed this could happen that we could pull a full house. I think they're ahead in terms of playoff victories. I thought we would have a good season, but no way in my wildest dreams could I expect what I've seen.'
As they have done in the previous three games, the Sidekicks scored in the opening quarter to put the Force down, 1-0.
Lawson took a pass from Tatu in the right corner and Lawson hit a shot from 30 feet out that Force goalie Johns dropped to the ground to block. But Cleveland's Gino DiFlorio deflected the shot high into the net to give the Sidekicks the early lead.
Just over a minute into the second quarter, it was Tatu again assisting to give the Sidekicks a 2-0 lead. The Sidekicks forward beat the Force's Bernie James and Carl Valentine down the right side and hit a shot that Johns blocked. Kevin Smith, who had moved to the left post, was there to knock in the rebound for his sixth playoff goal.
The Force closed the gap to 2-1 at 11:31 when Peter Ward's shot deflected off Mike Uremovich's foot past Sidekicks' goalie Krys Sobieski. But Tatu regained the two-goal margin for the Sidekicks two minutes later, beating James in the right corner.
Tatu spun around the Force defender, took two steps toward the goal, and hit a 25-foot shot that beat Johns to the far post for his eighth playoff goal.