March 17, 2011
MADISON, Wis. – After sizing up the challenge – and taking the pulse of the locker room – Meghan Duggan felt like it was time to say something. "I always try to get the team ready for the big game," she said, "to make sure we’re all on the same page and prepared for the task at hand."
Who better to say something than the inspirational leader of the UW women’s hockey team? Duggan, a battle-tested senior, is one of the returning Olympians along with Hilary Knight, a junior. "If it’s coming from your upperclassmen," said head coach Mark Johnson, "they understand how to say things."
Johnson doesn’t have any problems with other "voices" emerging in his locker room. In fact, he encourages his leaders to speak up. "As a coach, if you’re hearing the right things being said," he noted, "you don’t have to say the same thing. They understand what needs to be pushed."
Before the Badgers took the ice for last Saturday’s NCAA quarterfinal matchup against Minnesota Duluth at the Kohl Center, Duggan delivered a message to her teammates. Having played four times already this season, there were obviously no secrets between the UW and the Bulldogs.
"I just told the girls, 'Let’s not let this one slip away,'" Duggan recounted. "We had 60 minutes ahead of us and we were basically in control of our destiny. I didn’t want a minute to go by where anyone questioned, 'What if I did this? Or what if I did that?' I just kind of instilled that in their head."
Eyeing the prize – a trip to the NCAA’s Frozen Four – Duggan gave a strong closing argument, too. "I let them know," she said, "that we’re an incredible team. We have everything that we need – as long as we play our game and play up to our potential – to do great things."
What was the reaction? "She basically calmed our team," said freshman goaltender Alex Rigsby, who had her own interpretation of what Duggan had to say. "She told us, 'Listen, this is what we’re going to do and this is how it’s going to happen and we’re going out there and we’re going to win.'"
It’s one thing to talk the talk – another thing to skate the skate. In this context, it was only fitting that Knight got the game-tying goal and Duggan the game-winner as the No. 1-ranked Badgers rallied to knock off Duluth, 2-1, behind the strong goaltending of Rigsby, who had 29 saves.
"You never know what’s going to happen with nerves and how kids are going to react on the bigger stage," Johnson said of Rigsby. "But I thought she had good composure. The early part of the season, she was coming off hip surgery. As she has gotten stronger, her play has gotten better."
Rigsby improved her record to 25-1-2. "Her confidence has increased tremendously and that’s an important part at any position," said Knight without having to add "especially with goaltenders." That's a given. "She has been improving every game," she went on. "She’s playing amazing."
Duggan expanded on that point. "She has been the key for us the second part of the season, especially during the playoffs," she said. "She’s playing like a veteran, like a four-year senior. She’s calm and composed and she’s definitely a huge reason why we are where we are right now."
The Badgers, who will face Boston College in Friday’s semifinals, are shooting for their fourth national championship in the last six seasons under Johnson. They won titles in 2006, 2007 and 2009. They were runner-ups in 2008 to Minnesota-Duluth, which also won the crown in 2010.
"It’s about executing right now, that’s the biggest thing," Johnson said. "We’ve spent six months trying to create habits and an identity. At this time, I don’t need them to do more. I just need them to continue to do what they’ve been doing. If you do that collectively, you’re going to play good hockey."
Knight was in total agreement. "Each player on this team has an important role and we have to do what we’ve done all year," she said. "We’re a hard-working team and we’re resilient. If we have a lapse, and someone puts in a couple of goals against us, we’re going to come back."
Several weeks ago, Johnson was asked if his team had another gear. He chuckled and said, "When I’m out biking and I’m about ready to climb a hill. I need another gear sometimes and I don’t have one – I’m in the 'granny' gear and I don’t have another one – and my legs are burning."
In the next breath, he conceded, "Experience is a big factor. If that can be another gear to make the younger players become more comfortable in these (playoff) settings where it’s one and done, hopefully the experience that we have with some of our upperclassmen will provide leadership."
Duggan takes the role very seriously. "As seniors and captains, it’s our responsibility to get the team ready and prepared," she said. "We have some young kids, freshmen and sophomores, who have never been to an NCAA tournament. I’m lucky. This is my fourth."
Duggan’s fourth appearance in the Frozen Four. "I have a little experience in that area," she said with a smile. "And I’ll use what I know to prepare them (her teammates) to do their best in the game. It’s going to come down to who wants it more and who makes the least amount of mistakes."
In addition to their NCAA experience, Duggan and Knight both played for Team USA in a gold-medal Olympic game against Team Canada. "Having that under our belt gives us a different perspective," Knight said. "We’ve dealt with pressure and things outside the rink."
They also took away something from that experience. "That’s how to stay calm and turn your nerves into excitement in a pressure situation," Duggan said. "What can happen is that you can get so excited, so amped up that when the puck drops, your legs feel like lead for the first 20 minutes."
Duggan’s solution? "Remember that it’s a sport that I love," she said. "It’s a game and I play it for fun as much as sometimes the games are life and death for me. I want to make sure we’re having fun. We’ve put our team in a great situation and we need to enjoy being there and just bring our game."
Will Duggan have something to say to the team before taking the ice Friday? "You never know what’s going to come out of my mouth," she admitted. "Each moment is different. It’s going to be whatever I’m feeling, whatever the mood is in the locker room and whatever the girls need."
A winning hat trick.