Lucas at Large: Momentum or not, Johnson likes Badgers' chances

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How do you quantify momentum? Especially in a program that wins so much?

UW women's hockey coach Mark Johnson has rarely been forced to go down this path where the momentum of his team has come into question.

"Momentum comes in different areas,'' Johnson reasoned. "Obviously if you win a big game and there are some dramatics within that game -- if you happen to win in overtime -- it's going to carry some energy over to your next practice or game.

"If you beat a real high-quality opponent, I think it can do the same thing. That's what is so fun about the postseason. Unlike regular-season games, the playoff games are all big. Certainly, the momentum of the season and playoffs can carry into the NCAA games.''

But what if the opposite is true? The Badgers lost their final game of the regular season to Ohio State, and they also lost to Minnesota Duluth in the WCHA Final Face-Off. Do they have momentum going into Saturday's NCAA quarterfinal matchup against Mercyhurst?

"I think we're in a good spot, whether you define it as momentum or not,'' Johnson said. "As I was telling our staff this week, if we were sitting in the locker room in September and we were saying, 'We're going to be the No. 1 seed,' we would have taken it.

"We're in a good position. We're pretty healthy and we're where we need to be. Like any sport, it's now going to come down to execution. At the end of the day, you don't want to have any regrets. Championship teams don't make any excuses.''

Losing two of their last four games has been a breaking news story in women's college hockey, particularly since the Badgers lost only twice in their first 34 games. A Johnson-coached team hasn't lost consecutive games in five years.

Consider: after losing 3-2 to Minnesota on Oct. 16, the Badgers bounced back with a 4-3 win over Duluth; after losing 1-0 to the Gophers on Jan. 7, they crushed North Dakota 8-2; after losing 4-2 to Ohio State on Feb. 18, they overwhelmed Minnesota State 7-0.

"We've done a lot of good things,'' Johnson said modestly.

Does he still believe that you can learn more about yourself after a loss than a win even though his teams have so little experience with losing?

"Absolutely,'' he said. "You ask yourself, 'What do we need to do to make sure we don't feel this way after our next game?'''

What about the leadership in his locker room? How have some of his better players handled going 2-2 over their last four games? "Anytime you lose it's a tough pill to swallow,'' he said. "We haven't been there very often (as a program). But you deal with it.''

To this end, Johnson has been encouraged by their reaction to the recent setbacks. "They're saying the right things,'' he said. "They're coming to practice and doing the right things. You never want to lose but if you can become better, it's a good path to go down.''

It's just that so few people around here are conditioned to this conversation.

"When we lost a (NCAA) quarterfinal game in '05 to Dartmouth,'' Johnson said, "it was one of those things where we talked afterward and planted a seed for the following year. That learning experience helped us win in '06.

"That's how I look at our playoff system. It's a good two week learning opportunity, whether you've been successful or not. If you get to see another day - which we do - you need to take some things from the loss and move on. That's how I look at momentum.''

Never let them see you sweat, either.

"It comes down to habits and what we do on a daily basis,'' said Johnson, whose calm and collected demeanor sets the tone for his team. "It's the way you go about business. You learn from what the previous game showed you.

"If you're consistent in what you do and your approach, the players understand that and they get to the point where they don't like losing either. They'll come back more focused on paying attention to detail and playing with a little more hunger.''

That's what he's counting on against Mercyhurst.

"Executing and playing with energy is crucial right now,'' he stressed. "We've shown all year that we've been competitive and consistent and we've won a lot.

"Our preparation will give us our best chance to win knowing if we're not successful, it's the end of the road.''
ON WISCONSIN