#USPHLPlayoffs Series Preview: Wisconsin Rapids Riverkings vs. Minnesota Blue Ox

By Jim Den Hollander / USPHL.com 

Wisconsin Rapids Riverkings (No. 4) vs. Minnesota Blue Ox (No. 5)

All Games At Wisconsin Rapids

Friday, March 3, 7 p.m. CST

Saturday, March 4, 7 p.m. CST

Sunday, March 5, 7 p.m. CST (if necessary) 

The fourth-seeded Wisconsin Rapids Riverkings vs. fifth-seeded Minnesota Blue Ox promises to be the most exciting series of the opening rounds in the Midwest West, matching two teams separated by seven points and connected with some prior playoff history.

The 23-19-2 Riverkings will host the 19-22-3 Ox at South Wood County Recreation Center in the Best of Three division quarterfinal. Home ice is generally a key advantage in a short playoff series but the Blue Ox seem to enjoy playing in the Rapids rink.

The Blue Ox pulled off a series win in three games (3-5, 2-1, 2-0) in the spring of 2019 and then swept the series in Rapids in 2021 (3-2, 2-1).

The Blue Ox also captured wins in three of four meetings against the Riverkings this season including a pair in Rapids, Feb. 3-4.

Head Coach Jay Witta is fine with the underdog tag and has some experienced leaders coming into this series.

“We will be led by our four age-outs – Griffin Bourassa, Marc Abrego, Zach Lamotte and Elias Johan and five returners from last year’s National Tournament team, including Eli Marchese and Nate Cheney,” said Witta.

While the team enjoyed great success, they entered the 2022-23 season knowing the team would be a work in progress as the season rolled on.

“With 21 new players this year, we knew going into this season it was going to be a seven-month process of development, loyalty and patience, especially after finishing in the top eight last year with a 43-8-1 record.”

Chemistry comes from a group that is guaranteed to play the full season in the blue and black.

“Our commitment to our players outweighs winning every season. That is the culture we have built the last six years,” said Witta. “We have not traded or released one player this season so this team is a tight, close unit that has been together since the end of July and can do great things together.

Also, Witta is aware the Rapids rink seems to bring out the best in his team.

“We will be ready, four lines deep, seven D-men a game and confident goaltending. (We are) looking forward to Friday in Wisconsin Rapids. We love playing in that energetic atmosphere.”

Riverkings Head Coach and GM Paul Pechmann is new to the Blue Ox-Riverking rivalry this season but he is confident his team will be ready to roll on Friday even though on paper the Blue Ox has checked some boxes for sure.

“No question they are a tough team to play and the only team underneath us in the standings that we don’t have a winning record against,” said Pechman. “That said, we feel we will be better prepared for them knowing there is a lot at stake now. This isn’t just another weekend.”

Pechman said his team is at its best when it plays a responsible defensive game.

“The key for us is how well we play on the D-side of the puck and in our zone. When we are playing structured disciplined hockey using our strengths, we have the capability of beating anyone.”