Strand, Notre Dame skaters hoping better second half begins with Alaska series

Tribune Staff Report
Notre Dame center Hunter Strand (11) attempts a shot on goal in the second period against Minnesota at the Compton Family Ice Arena Friday, Jan. 28, 2022, in South Bend.

SOUTH BEND — Getting home for the holidays can be brutal as Hunter Strand can attest. 

In fact, it is comparable to the starts both the 20-year-old sophomore center and his Notre Dame teammates have endured during the 2022-23 season. 

Head coach Jeff Jackson and his staff expected better things from Strand, who had eight goals and seven assists his freshman season as the Irish went 28-12 during the 2021-22 campaign. But Strand has just one goal and four assists as 17th-ranked Notre Dame has struggled to an 8-8-2 start entering 5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday home games against Alaska Fairbanks.

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Jackson believes the 5-foot-11, 188-pound Strand, who played for the United States National Team Development Program, has what it takes to come back in this season’s second half. 

“Hunter brings a lot of positives to the table – his competitiveness, his hockey sense, getting into those gritty areas,” Jackson said. “He has the skills and abilities to be a good offensive player. But just like a number of guys this year, he’s started slow.”

 Strand is a native of Anchorage, Alaska, which is almost 3,700 miles northwest of Notre Dame’s Compton Family Ice Arena. His trip home for the holidays began on Dec. 15 and included a canceled connecting flight in Seattle. After a “milk-run” of up-and-down flights to Juneau, Ketchikan, Yakutat and Cordova, Strand finally arrived in Anchorage on Dec. 16 some 26 hours after he left campus.  

Strand’s trip back was much, much easier. Leaving Anchorage on Christmas night, he had a red-eye direct flight to Chicago and shared a ride back to campus with junior defenseman Zach Plucinski, who is from Eagle River, Alaska. Their total trip was about 10 hours. 

Tough start, better finish — mirroring the seasons of Hunter and the Irish. If you count Notre Dame’s season-opening Ice Breaker Tourney in Colorado (against Denver and Air Force) and Thanksgiving trip to Boston (single games versus Boston University and Boston College) as series, Notre Dame is 3-6 in series-opening games but 5-2-2 when finishing series. 

“We’ve always figured out a way to bounce back,” Strand said. “If we could start out faster (in the second half), we have a good chance of making the playoffs and being a good team. We have what it takes. We just need that little extra connection to go above and beyond.” 

Strand intends to do his part. “I’ve been a little snakebit,” he said. “I feel like I haven’t been as offensive as I would like. Hopefully it will come. But our mindset has to be about winning, not about (scoring) the points. We’ve talked about not being selfish. It’s about winning games.”

 Strand hopes to do his part starting this weekend against the Nanooks, who play in Fairbanks, some 360 miles north of Anchorage. The two cities have junior all-star teams which compete against each other annually, and Strand remembers how competitive those games were.

 “The Fairbanks AAA team was our No. 1 rival, so there’s still that connection and I want to beat them,” Strand said. “We can’t take them for granted. They’re a good team, an older team which is big and physical.” 

As Hunter Strand knows, nothing comes easy these (holi)days, whether it’s in the airport or on an ice sheet.

Alaska Fairbanks vs. Notre Dame

Who: Alaska Fairbanks Nanooks (9-7-2) vs. Notre Dame Fighting Irish (8-8-2)

When: Saturday and Sunday 5 p.m.

Where: Lefty Smith Rink (4,852) at Compton Family Ice Arena, South Bend

Radio: WZOC-FM (94.3) and

TV/Streaming: Peacock

Tickets: Available through Tickets or at Compton box office

Coaches: Alaska Fairbanks, Erik Largen (26-65-13 in fifth season at Fairbanks, 44-72-13 in fifth season overall). … Notre Dame, Jeff Jackson (384-239-68 in 18th season at Notre Dame, 566-291-93 in 24th season overall). 

Recaps: Alaska Fairbanks is coming off sweep at Alaska-Anchorage, winning 4-0 Dec. 16 and 1-0 Dec. 17. … Notre Dame coming off Big Ten Conference split with visiting Penn State, losing 5-2 Dec. 9 and winning 5-3 Dec. 10.

Rankings: Alaska Fairbanks is not ranked. … Notre Dame is No. 17 in USA Today/USA Hockey Magazine coaches’ poll Dec. 19 and No. 19 in DCU/ media poll Dec. 12.

Rivalry: Notre Dame leads series 32-25-4, including 20-11-1 in games played in South Bend. … Teams last met Dec. 31 and Jan. 1 during 2016-17 season in South Bend and Irish had back-to-back shutout victories (5-0 and 4-0) by Cal Petersen. … Nanooks swept series at Compton on Jan. 18 (5-4) and Jan. 19 (2-1) during 2012-13 season. … Three former Notre Dame players were head coaches at Fairbanks: Ric Schafer (Class of 1974, forward-defenseman) was 99-82-3 from 1980-87; Don Lucia (1981, defenseman) was 99-97-19 from 1987-93; Dave Laurion (1982, goaltender) was 80-122-9 from 1993-99.

Scouting Nanooks: Alaska Fairbanks on a four-game winning streak, all against fellow independent Alaska-Anchorage. … Graduate left wing Jonny Sorenson, who played his junior hockey in Fairbanks before playing 100 games for Minnesota and scoring 22 points, leads the Nanooks with 12 points on six goals and six assists. … Sophomore center Harrison Israels (6-4-10) is second ahead of junior defenseman Garrett Pyke (1-8-9), sophomore center Payton Matsui (1-8-9), sophomore center Brady Risk (5-3-8) and sophomore right wing Chase Dubois (3-5-8). … Senior goalie Matt Radomsky, a transfer from College of the Holy Cross, had back-to-back shutouts against Anchorage and now has a 9-7-2 record, a 1.95 average and .917 saves percentage.

… NCAA team statistics (out of 60 teams Dec. 26): Scoring offense, 2.56 goals per game (42nd); scoring defense, 2.06 goals per game (6th); scoring margin, 0.50 goals per game (22nd); faceoff-win percentage, 0.511 (533-510) (26th); power-play goals, 10 (42nd); power-play percentage, 0.161 (10-62) (46th); shorthanded goals score, 2 (19th); penalty-kill percentage, 0.842 (64-76) (12th); team penalty minutes per game, 13.94 (6th).

Scouting Fighting Irish: With 16 games remaining, Notre Dame plays its last non-Big Ten series against Nanooks. … Team’s strength of schedule is No. 1 among NCAA Division I teams. … Junior right wing Ryder Rolston (6-7-13) leads team in scoring ahead of graduate defenseman and captain Nick Leivermann (5-7-12), senior right wing Trevor Janicke (3-8-11) and graduate center Chayse Primeau (3-8-11). … Senior goaltender Ryan Bischel (8-8-1 record, 2.64 average, .925 saves percentage, three shutouts) is second in the nation with 570 saves, including a career-high 47 in 5-3 victory against Penn State.

… NCAA team statistics (out of 60 teams Dec. 26): Scoring offense, 2.50 goals per game (45th); scoring defense, 3.00 goals per game (38th); scoring margin, -0.50 goals per game (42nd); faceoff-win percentage, 0.495 (553-564) (35th); power-play goals, 9 (46th); power-play percentage, 0.153 (9-59) (49th); shorthanded goals score, 1 (28th); penalty-kill percentage, 0.773 (51-66) (46th); team penalty minutes per game, 12.83 (11th).

Quoting Jeff Jackson: (Scouting Nanooks): “They recruit a lot of older players out of western Canada and the western U.S. Those kids are a little grittier, harder to play against. They’ve always been a well-coached team. They have good structure to their game, and it makes them hard to play against. They gave Penn State two really hard games at Penn State (3-2 and 2-1 losses). A year ago, they knocked off Minnesota. They are a team you can’t take lightly.”

(Penn State series) “I almost felt like we played better on Friday than Saturday. On Saturday, we took advantage of the opportunities we had to score. The positives from the weekend were our penalty-kill did pretty good for the most part, our power play scored each night, and our faceoffs were better. There were some positive things to build on from that.”

(Starting series better) “It’s a maturity thing (Irish went 3-6 in first games of series in first half) … a mental lapse where something bad happens and it gets magnified. We need to have the majority to respond in a positive way.”

Next up: Alaska Fairbanks at No. 2/1 Denver and Notre Dame at Wisconsin Jan. 6-7.