By GREGG DRINNAN
Daily News Sports Editor
Jon Groenheyde, a goaltender who in the past has been known to lose his cool, was cooler than the proverbial cucumber Friday night at Interior Savings Centre.
Except for a few moments in the second period . . . but more about that in a minute.
While his teammates were at times losing their heads, Groenheyde was keeping his and backstopping them to a 5-2 WHL regular-season victory over the Prince George Cougars before 4,597 fans.
It was the first game of the season for both teams. The Blazers are at home to the Chilliwack Bruins tonight, 7 o’clock, while the Cougars will meet the Rockets in Kelowna.
“It’s a good thing we had Jon back there,” said Kamloops left-winger Dylan Willick who, once again, was terrific against his hometown team. (“It works for me,” Willick said.)
Groenheyde, who worked a lot over the summer on controlling his emotions, stopped 39 shots in what was the first season-opening start of his career.
He was there in the first period, making two good pad saves, as his teammates took a 2-0 lead on goals by Willick — a shot from defenceman Linden Saip may, or may not, have gone in off Willick and will be subject to video review today — and captain Chase Schaber.
And Groenheyde was there in the second as the Blazers were outshot 20-10 but emerged with a 4-2 lead.
“I thought he played very well,” Kamloops head coach Guy Charron said of his 19-year-old third-year goaltender. “He was solid and made the saves when he had to.”
Early in the second period, however, it appeared that Groenheyde had a problem. His mask propped back on his head, he had a lengthy conversation with referee Trevor Hanson, who ultimately had the last word by emphatically pointing at a faceoff dot and ordering play to proceed.
“I needed a TUMS and he wouldn’t let me go get one,” a smiling Groenheyde said.
Whether it was an upset stomach or acid reflux, Groenheyde was beaten for the first time moments later when Prince George sniper Brett Connolly walked around defenceman Tyler Hansen and snapped a shot into the net.
Connolly, one of the WHL’s top talents, missed all but 16 games last season with hip problems. Still, the Tampa Bay Lightning selected him sixth overall in the 2010 NHL draft, and kept him in camp until yesterday morning. He flew into Kelowna, landing at 4:30 p.m., and drove to Kamloops with Cougars owner Rick Brodsky, who lives in the Little Apple, and general manager Dallas Thompson.
Groenheyde’s stomach settled down after that and he was rock solid.
The Blazers weren’t.
“My message to them,” Charron said, “was that we became too cute. In the first period, we were all over them. Unfortunately, (we didn’t have any) shots to show for it. We dominated . . . we were good territorial . . . we didn’t get shots on goal . . we didn’t converge on goal.
“We didn’t do the things for us to be successful and to put teams away. It’s just something that we have to learn, that we have to get better at.”
Still, the Blazers got second-period goals from wingers JT Barnett and Brendan Ranford to take a 4-1 lead and gain control of this one.
“I thought we played a solid road game,” offered Prince George head coach Dean Clark, whose club had the poorest record in the 60-team CHL last season. “Their first goal went off two guys. Before their third goal, we were taking it to them, and they get one chance and make it 3-1.
“Although I didn’t like the score, this can be a confidence-builder.”
Defenceman Martin Marincin, a 6-foot-4 Slovakian who was a second-round pick by the Edmonton Oilers in the NHL’s 2010 draft, pounded a slapshot past Groenheyde on a late second-period power play to get the visitors to within two.
But Willick, who is from Prince George, iced this one with an empty-net goal at 18:45 of the third.
“My line was going and we were getting ice time,” said Willick, who started his second WHL season alongside Colin Smith and Jordan DePape.
Willick also made contributions with a couple of key blocked shots.
“That’s something I started at the end of last season,” he said, “and something I want to do from the start this time. If you do things like that, the goals will come.”
Asked what happened to the Blazers later in the game, Willick echoed his head coach by saying: “We tried to get too cute with the puck.”
“We turned the puck over way too much,” Charron stated. “If we want to be a team that competes against the best every night, we’re going to have to be a lot better in some areas.
“The good thing is we won a game . . . as poorly as we played we found a way to win and that’s a good sign.”
JUST NOTES: In his first game as the Blazers’ captain, Schaber had a Gordie Howe hat trick — a goal, an assist and a fight. . . . Referees Brett Iverson and Hanson gave the Cougars 10 of 17 minors and two of four majors. . . . Kamloops was 1-for-8 on the power play; the Cougars were 1-for-5. . . . The Cougars twice were called for having too many men on the ice. The second one gave the Blazers a two-man advantage for 58 seconds but they couldn’t score. . . . Prince George G James Priestner stopped 23 shots. . . . The Daily News Three Stars: 1. Groenheyde: He was big when he needed to be; 2. Willick: Best skater on the ice; 3. Connolly: Great to see him healthy.
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