Monday press conference: Mark Johnson

Women's hockey coach discussed the upcoming WCHA playoffs

Are you going to have a hard time preparing for St. Cloud? [Wisconsin swept St. Cloud over the weekend.]

"I feel like I'm back in the Stanley Cup playoffs. No, I'm pretty comfortable with where we're at, at this particular time. I think any coach, as you get later into the season, as you close in on playoffs, want to be playing your best hockey for us. And for the last four weekends we've been pretty consistent from game to game, and actually been pretty consistent from period to period, and that's sort of been the theme the last four weeks.

"And, you know, now having to play St. Cloud (State) for a third time in a row is going to be a challenge just because they've got time to prepare. They've got time to make some changes. And so our task is to continue the habits that we formed over the last six months and be prepared to battle them for 60 minutes Friday afternoon."

Is there any difference in mindset or attitude or atmosphere for your team going into this WCHA Tournament as opposed to years past because of the NCAA where, years past it was almost you had to win the tournament to be able to get in. This year it might not be the case for you.

"Well, it starts a new season for everybody. I mean, for the first time in women's hockey there's a real meaning to the tournament from the standpoint that the winner of the tournament gets an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament. And so for all eight teams that are going to Minneapolis this weekend, they have a chance. And so obviously some teams have a better chance than others. Over the course of the last six months we've seen that. But everybody has a chance right now. And so everybody's got a new season. Everybody starts at ground-zero and we move forward. And so the meaning of the tournament becomes that much more important for everybody because the winner of it gets that automatic bid. And so it will be fun. It will be challenging.

"And for our team the biggest hurdle they have to get over is between the ears. You know, they've been in great position the last couple years entering this tournament. We've had good teams. And we've just run into a stumbling block. It's a mental thing. And so, as I mentioned earlier, we're comfortable right now with the way we're playing, and now we just have to maintain that and, you know, really mentally have faith in your teammates, believe in one another, and truly believe you have a chance to win the tournament.

"And that's the message I'm going to portray to them the next three or four days, is they're a good hockey team, they've done very well over the last six months. We set a school record in wins with our win Saturday afternoon in St. Cloud. They've done a lot of great things. But in order to take the next step, the upperclassmen have to, you know, really show their leadership skills right now and push themselves and get over that hurdle. And so that's going to be the message.

"As we all know in the hockey world, this is the fun part of the year. It's the enjoyment part. They've been working, you know, extremely hard. They've committed themselves, and they've developed into a pretty nice team, and now the fun begins. And so it's a new season and it starts Thursday afternoon with the first two games up in Ritter Arena, and then we'll play Friday afternoon."

Mark, you've seen this team all year and you talked about getting over that mental hurdle. Have you seen signs throughout the year that this team has a better chance to do that than previous teams or not?

"Well, I've seen the consistency, like I mentioned. It started probably five weekends ago up in Minnesota where we ended up losing both games but we played very well. And now it becomes, you know, the next four weekends and our last eight games, have been very consistent from period to period, from game to game. There's been some hurdles along the way. We've had a couple injuries. We had a couple girls that went over to Canada, over to Germany, and so we were missing people. And they've responded very well.

"And so, you know, now it's time to meet the next challenge, and the next challenge is for our seniors to make a statement as far as, you know, what their imprint is going to be on the program. Obviously they've done a lot of great things in their four years here. They've won a lot of games. But now it's time to step up to plate and swing a little bit harder and make that next push because we're capable of winning."

Mark, do you think your seniors know what needs to be done, or do you find them coming to you, because you've been in a lot of these situations previously, and kind of try and pick your brain a little bit to see what needs to be done, how far you have to go to get to the ceiling that maybe you think you can get to?

"That's a twofold, I guess, because unless you go through it and you experience the pain of losing as you start to climb the ladder, like we did last year in a similar situation in the semifinal game against Duluth where we had to win the game really to push ourselves into the Final Four. When you lose those types of games and they hurt, they sting. And but yet through that, those are the things that you grow as an individual and you grow as a player. And so those are the things that I'll try to relate to them in responding to how they prepare themselves for, you know, Friday and then hopefully Saturday and Sunday.

"But the big thing is it's not a one-day situation where all of a sudden you get yourself prepared. It's an accumulation of the six months. It's an accumulation of the four years that they've been here. And the big thing is they've earned the right. They have to believe that they're capable of winning. And as I mentioned earlier, it's between the ears right now because they're capable of beating teams. We've beaten Harvard and we've skated with Minnesota, we've beaten Duluth. And when you've done that, you should gain confidence through it that you're capable of beating anybody in the country."

You mentioned before, Mark, in comparing your team to Minnesota's or the Duluth's that maybe one of the things, the biggest difference is lacking that big-time player that some of those programs have. Is Molly Engstrom one of those players? Does she have the potential to be one of those players, or is she one already now?

"She's developed into a very solid defenseman. And the credit goes to her because when she first came to Wisconsin I don't think she was in that type of picture as far as U.S. national teams, possibility of making the Olympic teams. She's developed her skills. She's worked extremely hard. And she's put herself in that position.

"Ben Smith, our Olympic coach, has given her some opportunities with the Four Nations Tournament last year. She played in the World Championships. And through that she's developed and gained a lot of confidence because she's in the mindset that, you know, hey, I can play with these world-class players.

"And so when she comes back to us, that confidence is certainly out there. And she's had an outstanding year. Carla MacLeod, my team captain, this afternoon in a press conference up in Canada will be named to the Canadian National Team and will participate in the World Championships (in Sweden). So those are the individuals not only with the college experience, but the international experience that you count on this week to get the girls mentally ready for the weekend and for what's ahead."

Is it nice to know that Minnesota is beatable heading into this tournament?

"I think the way it's shaping up right now anybody's beatable. Obviously Dartmouth has had a few rinks in their feathers the last couple weekends. And so like any sport, you get towards the end, and I know when my 10th-grader, Patrick, when Memorial lost in the first round of the playoffs, you get into those playoff situations and it's a one-and-done, anything can happen. And, you know, you run into a hot goaltender, you run into a situation where the puck doesn't bounce with you, it can end really quickly.

"And so that's part of the excitement though. That's the fun of it. And if you knew the end it won't be as fun. But not knowing the end and the challenges that are ahead of you, that's the excitement. That's why I think we as coaches get excited at this time of year. And I think equally as well the players get excited because they're, you know, they're in condition. They've played a long season. And now they can see a little bit of that light at the end of the tunnel. And if you have a good team and are in a position to maybe do some damage, I think that makes things a lot more exciting."

Mark, the expansion of the tournament, what's it done to the whole sport of women's hockey? Has it given, energized it or given it a boost, or is there a lot of buzz about it, opportunities that weren't there in the past?

"Well, I think in the next three weeks we'll see that because, you know, last year, you know, we were just trying to get our foot in the door, extremely close, but then all of a sudden you're shut out. And so all of a sudden the talk about it gets eliminated, where this year in the next three weeks, you know, we'll have four more campuses talking about NCAA hockey and the opportunity to win the NCAA Championship.

"So I think from an exposure standpoint, it's just going to be that much more out there. And so instead of having four campuses talking about going to New Hampshire in the Frozen Four, we're going to have eight campuses. We'll have in the first round four campuses hosting an NCAA tournament. And the one thing about our sport is if it's exposed and people are reading about it, people are seeing it, it just helps everything out. So it's just going to be a real positive next three or four weeks for women's hockey."

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