Thursday thoughts: Johnson needs to stand and deliver for Badgers this year

Ann-Renée Desbiens will lead a Badgers team that has all the tools to win a championship for the first time in five years. 

Image By: Betsy Osterberger

Mark Johnson and Carl Spackler, Bill Murray’s character in “Caddyshack,” have something unusual in common: Gophers are their kryptonite.

For Murray, it was a pesky gopher digging up the golf course that he was supposed to be maintaining. For Johnson, it’s a gopher of the golden variety, one that resides about four hours north of Madison.

The Minnesota Golden Gophers have ended the Wisconsin women’s hockey team’s season the last three years. And since the Badgers won it all in 2011, Minnesota has ended their season four out of those five years. The Gophers have become an insurmountable hump for Mark Johnson’s squads.

A year ago, Wisconsin lost just four games. Three of those losses were to Minnesota. Wisconsin did not drop a contest at home, going 21-0, including beating the Golden Gophers twice at LaBahn Arena early in the campaign. The Badgers then beat Minnesota again in the championship game of the WCHA Final Face-Off.

But it wasn’t the win Wisconsin needed. Two weeks later, the Golden Gophers ended the Badgers historic season with a 3-2 overtime win in the Frozen Four semifinals.

Johnson, never one to sugarcoat, is well aware of his team’s struggles against their archrival.

"Certainly disappointing to be in the same situation three years in a row and we haven't been able to get over the hump,” Johnson said after last year’s loss.

Over the five years since they won the title, the Badgers are 4-19-2, a .160 winning percentage, against Minnesota. And three of those four wins came last year in a season where it looked as if Wisconsin had all the tools to get over the hump. Ultimately though, they could not, and the pesky Gophers got the last laugh again.

If last year wasn’t the year for Mark Johnson to finally vanquish the Gophers, then this season has to be. Wisconsin returns its two best players, senior goalie Ann-Renée Desbiens and junior forward Annie Pankowski, both of whom are capable of being the top player in the nation at their respective positions.

Desbiens was named the USCHO Player of the Year after breaking NCAA records for single-season shutouts, save percentage and goals-against average. Pankowski led the team in points for the second straight year, scoring 22 goals. Oh, and they also return leading goal scorer Sarah Nurse, as well as Emily Clark who finished second on the team in goals.

Johnson’s job is most definitely not on thin ice. After all, he’s won four national championships and has been to nine Frozen Fours. But after three years of the same failure, Johnson must figure out how to mentally motivate his team to beat Minnesota. There were years that Minnesota was simply the better team. But last year this was not the case: The two were about as even as could be, but Wisconsin couldn’t get the job done on the big stage.

The Badgers will have their strongest team in the past five seasons this year. The time to beat Minnesota and add another national championship trophy to their collection is now. Johnson, an intensely competitive coach, certainly knows this. He also knows that to cement his legacy as one of the best Badgers in history, Johnson will need to get his team over the hump. If he doesn’t, he will (sadly) suffer from the Les Miles/Nick Saban effect: Even though Johnson consistently captains a stellar program, the lack of recent championships could haunt him and his legacy.

He’s led his team to the apex before. It’s time to stand and deliver once again.

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