March 23, 2011
MADISON, Wis. -- There was the 5-4 overtime win over Minnesota in the WCHA Final Faceoff, followed by the 2-1 win over Duluth in the NCAA quarterfinals, followed by the 3-2 win over Boston College in the semifinals, followed by the 4-1 win over Boston University in the finals, capping another championship season.
"If I'm advertising or looking to promote women's hockey," said UW coach Mark Johnson, "I would take our last four games and just have people watch them. That would be a great selling tool.
"Each game had dramatic endings and players who were in the Olympics and it would have been a good showcase to address how far women's hockey has come and how entertaining it can be.
"Our game against Duluth was as tight as any we've had and certainly the game against BC was a nail-biter - where you're one step from a championship and one shot from maybe not getting there."
While celebrating the Badgers' fourth national championship in the last six seasons, Johnson got a reality check from a well-meaning parent who said, "Can't wait until next year to do this again."
Such are the expectations when you've raised the bar as high as Johnson has.
"I got to enjoy this title for an hour and a-half," he said with a sigh, and a laugh.
By his own admission, Johnson didn't know what to do with himself Monday.
"It was so strange because we didn't have practice," he said. "Now what do I do?"
For starters, he agreed to reflect on the season.
"It's the best chemistry we've ever had," he said. Sizing up his record-setting playmakers and scorers, led by Meghan Duggan and Hilary Knight, he added, "We were a tough group to beat."
Johnson couldn't put his finger on any specific turning point.
"But there were certain times during the year where we were challenged," he said.
With a number of players competiting on national teams, the Badgers were shorthanded for a string of games over Christmas which created a playing opportunity for others on the roster.
"The other kids stepped up and we were able to win some hockey games," he said, "and that put us in good position coming down the stretch. One of the things we talk about as coaches is that everybody wants to play. But in our business you only have so much playing time.
"So you talk to those players and remind them that they still have to work hard in practice; they still have to push themselves because you don't know when that opportunity is going to come. It might come tomorrow. It might come next week. It might come a month from now.
"But when the opportunity presents itself, you have to be ready."
Believe it or not, Johnson did have some legitimate concerns about this team.
"The one thing you always concern yourself with is, `Are you going to stay healthy?'" he said. "If one of your key players gets hurt at a particular time, it can put a damper on things. We went through that the last three weekends of the regular season and the first playoff series.
"Then we got healthy, we started getting people back and all the pieces fell into place."
Getting the Olympians back - including Johnson - shaped the season from the start.
But he also recalled meeting with the underclassmen last April. What was he hoping to find out about them? "Their willingness to throw both feet into the boat," he said, "and commit on a daily basis even though they might not see the fruit of their labor right away but eventually they would."
Both sides learned something. "I worked with the kids who were coming back and I sort of gave them a taste and a feel of who I was and how I went about my business," he said. "When we started in September, we took off from that point, which was really beneficial in getting the group prepared."
As the season played out, the No. 1 ranking never became a distraction. "If you have good upperclassmen and leadership," he said, "they're able to keep people focused on the task at hand."
Ten years from now, what will Johnson remember about this magical season?
"I'm going to remember how well the players got along," he said, "and how much they cared about each other and how they supported one another and held each other accountable."
He will also remember the final snap shot, not slap shot, but snap shot from Erie.
"Watching the kids celebrate on the ice is very satisfying," he said. "It never gets old."