By GREGG DRINNAN
Daily News Sports Editor
There were lessons to be learned last season as the Kamloops Blazers lost their last eight games and ultimately missed the WHL playoffs for only the second time in franchise history.
Fans of the locals will start to find out tonight if their favourites were good students as the Blazers stage their 31st regular-season opener, this one against the Prince George Cougars. Game time at Interior Savings Centre is 7 o’clock.
Nothing haunted the Blazers last season like undisciplined play and penalty killing. Only three of the WHL’s 22 teams compiled more penalty minutes; 19 teams had better penalty-killing records. That is a bad combination that resulted in Kamloops surrendering a WHL-high 88 power-play goals.
Centre Chase Schaber, the Blazers’ captain, said Friday that he and his teammates have talked about the discipline factor and they know how important it is going to be.
“Especially with the new rules the WHL has developed,” Schaber said after a 90-minute practice at Memorial Arena.
The WHL is cracking down on checking to the head and other hits in which the player absorbing the check is seen to be at risk.
“We’ve been working on it in practice,” Schaber said, pointing out that coaches have been “calling it whenever it has happened to let the guys know what’s wrong and what’s right. I feel that we have a good grasp on it.”
As he said, those hits aren’t acceptable in today’s game.
“You have to play by the rules or you don’t play at all,” Schaber said.
Schaber, a 20-year-old from Red Deer who was acquired from the Calgary Hitmen in January 2010, is of the opinion that his teammates learned one valuable lesson last season as they finished 29-37-6, tied for ninth in the 10-team Western Conference.
“We learned that we have to battle a lot harder,” he said. “Winning’s not easy. If it was easy, everybody would do it.”
And now, with four weeks of training camp behind them, their captain said the Blazers are “ready for it.”
“We’re ready for the challenge.” Schaber said. “Everyone came with the right frame of mind. We’re going to be ready to go (tonight).”
The Blazers’ roster shows 25 names, 17 of whom are WHL veterans, and only one — right-winger J.T. Barnett — was missing from Friday’s practice. He is expected back today from the camp of the NHL’s New Jersey Devils, but likely won’t play.
Also sitting out will be centre Logan McVeigh (concussion), left-winger Brendan Ranford (Game 4 of six-game suspension) and goaltender Taran Kozun.
Kamloops head coach Guy Charron said after practice that veteran Cam Lanigan will be the starting goaltender, with freshman Cole Cheveldave on the bench.
The Blazers are carrying eight defencemen and all are healthy. Don’t be surprised if they dress all eight and move veteran Bronson Maschmeyer onto the left wing, perhaps with Dylan Willick and Cole Ully.
That’s where Maschmeyer was in practice yesterday and he didn’t look at all out of place. In fact, he even scored one particularly nifty goal.
“Did you see that?” he said, before laughing and adding that he wouldn’t want to score like that on a regular basis in practice. “If I do, I’ll be stuck up there and have to work too hard all day.”
For his part, Charron said he is quite comfortable using Maschmeyer up front.
“He gives us a different option,” Charron said. “I’ve had discussions with him; he’s comfortable with it. And it doesn’t stop us from using him on the power play on the point.”
JUST NOTES: The Cougars are without F Brett Connolly (Tampa Bay Lightning) and D Martin Marincin (Edmonton Oilers). . . . Connolly had one assist in 14:06 of playing time as the Lightning beat the visiting Florida Panthers 5-2 last night. . . . The Blazers opened last season with a 5-2 victory over the visiting Cougars. . . . Prior to that, you have to go back to Sept. 25, 1998, to find the last time the Blazers opened at home against the Cougars. On that occasion, the teams played to a 4-4 tie. A tie? Remember them? . . . The Blazers beat the Cougars 7-1 in an exhibition game in Prince George on Sept. 16. Kamloops finished at 2-2-1; the Cougars were 1-3-1. . . . The Blazers are to play their first four games, and five of six, at home. Next up will be the Vancouver Giants on Friday. . . . D Corey Fienhage, who played with the Blazers last season, has been assigned by the NHL’s Buffalo Sabres to the AHL’s Rochester Americans. . . . Former Blazers F Cole Grbavac has been named captain of the Medicine Hat Tigers. . . . F Brett Lyon, who also played here, had three goals as the Moose Jaw Warriors beat the host Brandon Wheat Kings 4-1 last night. . . . G Lucas Gore, who is from Kamloops, stopped 49 shots last night as the U of Regina Cougars beat the U of Manitoba Bisons 1-0 in a preseason game played in Winnipeg.
Taking Note on Twitter