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#USPHLPlayoffs: Minnesota Blue Ox vs. Minnesota Moose 

Midwest West Division

Minnesota Moose (5) at Minnesota Blue Ox (4) 

All Games At Coon Rapids (Minn.) Ice Center

Friday, March 1, 7:05 p.m. CST

Saturday, March 2, 7:05 p.m. CST

Monday, March 4, 12 p.m. CST (If Necessary) 

 

By Joshua Boyd / USPHLPremier.com 

 

For a while in the earlier days of the USPHL Premier, the Minnesota Blue Ox and Minnesota Moose found ways to avoid each other on their respective marches to the National Championship tournaments. The Moose and Blue Ox together represented the Midwest West Division in 2019 and 2021, and one of these rival teams or the other qualified every year between 2018 and 2023. The Moose qualified every one of these seasons except for 2022. 

After this weekend however, one team’s Nationals plans will have to be scuttled. And the winning team couldn’t be happier as the two teams tussle over a shared territory of just about 10 miles in length. 

“The 4th vs. 5th seed matchup will be just as good as any final matchup in our division. Our division is so tight that anyone can beat anyone on any given night,” said Blue Ox Owner and Head Coach Jay Witta. “I believe our season series was pretty even. We may have had a slight edge in wins, but every game was tight with them. The Moose are always a good skilled clean north-south team that’s well-coached. This should be awesome for our fans to watch.”

The Blue Ox just narrowly edged the Moose for home ice rights by finishing at 25-18-0-1 for 51 points, two points ahead of the Moose’s output from a 23-18-1-2 season for 49 points. 

“I expect the series to be a good one. Throughout the season, we have had tight games with the Blue Ox and we know every game against them will be a battle,” said first year Moose Head Coach Nic Leibold. “They are a good team and it’s a fun rivalry to be a part of. Jay Witta runs a good ship over in Coon Rapids and I fully expect this series to demonstrate the intensity of the Moose-Blue Ox rivalry. Our guys know what’s at stake and I expect we will be ready to play hard.” 

The Blue Ox are bringing to the table three forwards who averaged more than a point per game, with Karl Grafelman leading the way (59 points in 44 games), Tommy Babb (57 points in 41 games) and Rylee Luebbers (43 points in 39 games). Luebbers and defenseman Arseni Malyutin tied for the team lead in plus-minus at +21. Defenseman Gabe Myers blocked 59 shots to lead the team, and Grafelman’s 495 faceoff wins were also tops. In net, Eli Marchese went 15-11-0-1 with a .918 save percentage. 

“I like where our team is at right now. We are four lines deep – with any line being able to score and we are seven defensemen deep,” said Witta. “Our power play units are buzzing and our PK has been very solid the last half of the year! Eli Marchese has been lights out down the stretch and Justin Garstecki and Jackson Clough give us more solid options in the net as well.

“The best part about this team is at least 21 of them have all been together since September’s Boot Camp,” he added. “Our sixth man is our unity and team mindset. We are hoping that will help carry us through a couple tough series and on to Utica!”

For the Moose, John Becker was essentially the team’s leading light from wire to wire, finishing with 40 points in 38 games. Zach Hutchinson (38 points) and Justus Harrison (37 points) were right behind him in the scoring race. Looking at the deeper analytics, Harrison was the plus-minus leader (+19), Hutchinson won 409 faceoffs (57% success rate) and forward Teague Pilgrim was the top shot-blocker with 41 blocks in 35 games. Goalie Joey Gag went 13-6-0-1 with a .920 save percentage to lead the Moose in net.

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