In a league as talented as the WCHA, seemingly every weekend produces compelling matchups. For the Wisconsin men's hockey team, this weekend's trip to Grand Forks, N.D., is one that has been circled on the calendar for a long time. The No. 11 Badgers (7-4-1 WCHA, 10-5-1 overall) close out the 2009 portion of their schedule with a two game showdown at Ralph Engelstad Arena against rival North Dakota (9-5-2, 6-5-1).
Wisconsin leads the all-time series between the two schools 83-60-10, and has won six of the last 10 contests. The Badgers actually hold a winning record in the state of North Dakota, posting a 36-30-7 mark.
Among the challenges of playing on the road in Grand Forks is the size of their sheet of ice. The No. 3 Fighting Sioux play on an Olympic-sized sheet, which is considerably narrower than the sheet at the Kohl Center. In preparation for the series, head coach Mike Eaves had the team practice on a smaller sheet at the Shell.
""You're only a stick length away from everybody,"" junior defenseman Brendan Smith said. ""It makes things a little easier defensively but a little tougher offensively. It has its ups and downs.""
The Badgers enter the series riding a wave of momentum. Winners in four of their last five contests, the Badgers thoroughly dominated a hapless Michigan Tech team last weekend in Madison, outscoring the Huskies 14-2 for the weekend while also finding their stride on the power play.
In 13 power play chances against Tech, the Badgers converted seven times, a 53.8 percent clip. Special teams will be pivotal in this series, as North Dakota has a net gain of 11 goals on special teams this year, four better than Wisconsin.
""It's good for confidence. For goal-scorers, to have that feeling that they can score is really important,"" Eaves said.
One Badger who should be feeling confident at this point is Smith. During his current and career-best seven-game scoring streak, he has scored five goals and registered 10 assists. He is scoring at a clip of 1.60 points per game, second best in the country and top among defenders.
The Badgers are not without some adversity, however. Junior goaltender Brett Bennett sustained a shoulder injury on Tuesday at practice and will miss, at the minimum, this weekend's series. That means fellow junior Scott Gudmandson will start on back-to-back nights for the first time this season.
""One of the things about having the depth that we have is that we have a young man that is there,"" Eaves said. ""[Gudmandson] is tested and he's got confidence working for him right now.""
Despite the Fighting Sioux being ranked third in the country, the Badgers actually sit two points ahead in the WCHA standings. The top six teams in the league are separated by just five points. The significance of this head-to-head matchup is not lost on Smith.
""We're all building up to the end of the year, and to get in the tournament,"" he said. ""It's going to be a battle and we want to come out with three or four points.""