Monday press conference: Mark Johnson

Women's hockey coach discussed Wisconsin's marquee matchup with top-ranked Minnesota

You played pretty well, it sounds like, last week up in Boston?

"The weekend was very good. Our game against Harvard on Friday afternoon was a game that was full of a lot of different elements that I think will make our hockey club better because of going through it. Obviously if you win the game and a lot of things happen within that game, you take some confidence from it. And I think it was a big hurdle for us to get over. It was an important game. Maybe not so much right now, but as the year progresses and we get towards the end, it's going to be very meaningful.

"But there were a lot of things that happened. We had the lead. We lost the lead. We regained the lead. They tied it back up. And we were able to score a couple goals late in the game to win an emotional victory. So it was a big win. The locker room was very excited. And we came back Saturday afternoon and again played very well.

"But unfortunately, the task doesn't get very much easier now with Minnesota coming in and trying to deal with what they have, and the power they have, and four or five players that nobody can stop. So it'll be a good challenge again for us. Obviously, coming off this past weekend should help, and, you know, we have five days to prepare and get ourselves ready. So it'll be a fun week of practice. I think when you play these top teams the kids tend to get up a little bit more than some of the other games. And I imagine Saturday afternoon will be a very emotional and very intense hockey game."

You said when the season started that they were going to be the team to beat. Are they every bit as good as their record indicates?

"Well, they score a lot of goals. They give up under one a game. Their power play is about 40 percent right now. And between the three Olympic players that are forwards, they produce probably 50 to 55 percent of their production, maybe more. But they're just very good players. When you're not playing them, they're a lot of fun to watch. So it's going to be a challenge.

"We got to see them play against Northeastern Friday, before our game, which was good. We've got them on tape. We're breaking it down. And you try to figure out, you know, what you can do to offset some of their strengths. And obviously one of the things we have to be concerned with is staying out of the penalty box, because if you give them, you know, too many opportunities on the power play, they're going to burn you. And they're just tough to stop because they're able to put out four Olympic players. They've got a young freshman that's very good. And they just complement each other. When they have five and you have four, it makes it tough when they're special players, and these kids are special players because four of them you'll see in about 15 months over in Turin in the 2006 Olympics wearing our USA jerseys.

"But the challenge is there. And it's going to be good because we need to be challenged right now from that standpoint after getting over a hurdle against Harvard. And if we're going to go anywhere at the end of the year, you're going to have to face Minnesota at some point, whether it's in our Final Five championship or whether we get our foot in the door and get involved in the NCAA picture at the end. You're going to have to beat them if you want to win this whole thing. And this weekend will be a great learning experience, and hopefully we'll have some success."

Mark, you've been in situations, well-documented situations, where the odds were pretty long in terms of winning a game and a really good opponent. How do you tap into that knowledge to try and get your players right now to understand you can win? I mean, this is a great team, but you can beat them.

"Absolutely. I mean, it's a good point, because, you know, you try to break it down and you try to simplify the game from the standpoint that it doesn't seem like a real gigantic hurdle that you have to get over. So in breaking down film, giving them a scouting report on Minnesota, you look for some tendencies. And we've beat them before. They're a little bit deeper than they were last year, but, you know, we beat them up in Minneapolis last year in their own building. We've had success against them.

"So those are the little things that you try to instill in the player's head, that, yeah, they are a good team, they've got some good players, but here's a game plan, if we execute it we can beat them. And I think with the confidence that we have as the week progresses, you know, you'll just inch into that. As Wednesday and Thursday come along, you'll take a step further in that mindset, so when they step on the ice they're not nervous, they're not afraid. They just have to understand what they personally have to do as far as their role is concerned to make us successful.

"And I think when you play teams of this caliber, you want the game to go deep and stay close to them. You don't want to lose a hockey game in the first eight or ten minutes. You know, they got up on Harvard three goals right away in the first period, and they're tough to come back against. So if you can extend the game, you know, get into the second period, get into the third period where you're close, you know, then it becomes a real nail-biter for them because then the pressure goes on their hands.

"They haven't lost a game. Are they going to lose a game the rest of the season? Who knows. They have the capabilities to go undefeated. That's how good they are. But we're certainly going to put things together here for Saturday afternoon, and I anticipate, as I said earlier, our players getting excited, getting an opportunity. Our leadership comes from our seniors, who have played against them. They've played against them in international competition. They understand who these players are, what they're capable of doing. But at the same time, they're not fearful of them. If you're not fearful of them then it should be a good contest."

Do you have the skill to score with them, or would you rather have it be low scoring?

"I'd rather have it be a low-scoring game, because, you know, we've showed signs in some games that we're capable of scoring a bunch of goals, but, you know, when you play teams of their power and their ability, that's what separates them from so many teams in the country. If you're having an off night, all of a sudden (Natalie) Darwitz will step up, or (Krissy) Wendell will step up, and, you know, they'll snap one, two, three goals in a real short period of time. They have the offense that a lot of teams don't have.

"So if we're going to beat them, it's going to have to be 3-1, 3-2, 4-2, somewhere along those lines. If we get in a shootout like we did against Harvard, I don't like my chances as much because their goaltender's pretty solid back there. She's a senior. She's vying for a position possibly with our Olympic team. So there's a lot of things coming from their upperclassmen and their better players that you don't want to play with. It's, you know, it's like playing with fire. You keep playing a long time, eventually you're going to get burned. So if we can keep them, you know, one, two, three goals, then I like our chances."

When you break down what you have and what Minnesota has, do you sit here going, okay, I've got the better group here, I've got the better plan here? Do you have any advantage in your mind in terms of personnel, in terms of maybe a power play unit or shorthanded or goaltending?

"Well, I mean, number-wise, you know, they have three, two players that nobody else has. They don't come around very long. I'm not sure if they're going to come around here in the near future as far as American-born players. But these two young ladies are just very, very special. I mean, just ask Ben Smith and the different times he's been coaching them. You know, then you complement some of the depth they added compared to last year's team, which won the NCAA tournament, and they're a better squad.

"But the interesting thing about what we have and what we can complement to offset some of their things is that, you know, we have a pretty deep team. Our younger players are playing well. Our goaltenders are playing well. We have a good solid group of defensemen. And we've shown signs in spurts that we can score goals. And so if you have those different elements on your team and it all shows up on that specific day against this team, you know, then it's going to be a great game. I mean, I hope it's, you know, maybe tied or we're up a goal and it's, you know, four or five minutes to go, because, you know, similar to Harvard, we grow from those games. Our players learn from those situations. And at the end of the year you're better because of it.

"And, you know, that's why it was so important to play the way we did and the way we played Friday afternoon against Harvard, because a lot of things happened. At one point the referee called 11 penalties, nine of them on us, almost in a row. And, you know, those are elements that, it's a challenge. You can't get mad. You can't get frustrated. You just have to go out and execute and try to push yourself through it, and we were able to do that. And then being victorious just really helps your confidence, helps you as a team, and really hopefully will prepare us for Saturday afternoon's contest against the Gophs."

Mark, do you expect to play both Meghan (Horras) and Christine (Dufour) in net this week, and can you asses how they're playing so far this season?

"Well, Meghan Horras played very well against Harvard. We had at one point, I think, three straight minutes of five-on-three, killing off a penalty. And it was like a shooting gallery out there. But she did a great job and played very solid. Christine (Dufour) didn't get really tested in our game Saturday. But as we've done most of the year, other than our games up in Duluth, you know, we'll probably split, because it's early, you know, in the process.

"The games are extremely important to us, but we have to find more out about our players as we go through here, so as we get into February, we get into early March, that we have the best people on the ice and we're playing our best hockey. So the best way to test these young goaltenders is to put them out against the best. And last year we split them early in the season when they were in here, and both played very well, and that's probably the game plan we'll take into this weekend. I'm not sure who I'll start on Saturday, but I would imagine both of them will get tested."

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