Vees hungry to win again

Vees defenceman Chris Rygus said the team is looking to make a statement in 2014

Penticton Vees defenceman Chris Rygus.

Penticton Vees defenceman Chris Rygus.

Last year didn’t end like the Penticton Vees wanted. West Kelowna handed them 3-1 and 4-0 losses in a home-and-home series Dec. 20 and 21st, respectively.

Now they are focused on making a statement in 2014.

“We want to get back to our winning ways,” said defenceman Chris Rygus, who went home to Missassauga, Ont. for the Christmas break. “Really start separating ourselves and put really good winning streaks together like we did just before the break.”

Rygus said those two losses kind of stung, but what they learned is not to look too far ahead.

The Vees begin the new year with a home-and-home set with the Merritt Centennials, the first game in Merritt on Friday with the second Sunday in the South Okanagan Events Centre at  3 p.m. The Centennials are fifth in the Interior Division with 19 wins in 36 games and have won their last two games. The Vees have a five-point cushion on the Vernon Vipers for first with 24 wins in 37 games.

Rygus said the importance of these next two games is getting back into a groove. The Vees are 3-0-0-1 against the Centennials. The loss came at the SOEC on Oct. 16 in double-overtime. In the four games, the Vees have outscored the Centennials 15-9.

Rygus has noticed that the Centennials like to play a physical style and get as many shots on net as possible.

“The big difference, I think, going through the home-and-home series is special teams as well,” he said.

Sixteen penalties were handed out in the last two games between the teams. The Vees going 3-for-8, while the Centennials were 1-for-7. The Vees have the best power-play in the BCHL at 25 per cent with 37 goals on 146 chances. The Centennials are seventh best, scoring 19 per cent of the time (28-for-145).

The Vees players also know now what to expect from the Nicola Valley Arena with the strange bounces that the puck takes at times.

“It was kind of like a rude awakening, the first five minutes, but everyone is stressing how different it is,” he said. “We will have a game plan based around that.”

With the Christmas break over as he spent time with family and friends, Rygus said he’s refreshed and was eager to get back to Penticton two days before returning.

“Just taking your mind off hockey for a bit,” he added.

In other news, looking to add experience for its forward group, the Vees signed 20-year-old Erik Benoit today. The Calgary native joins the Vees after splitting this season with the Seattle Thunderbirds and Moose Jaw Warriors. He scored six goals to go with 13 points in 31 games.

“Adding a veteran like Erik at the center position will pay strong dividends as we look forward to a playoff push,” said Vees general manager Fred Harbinson in a team statement. “Not only is Erik a solid two-way player, but he also has the reputation of being a leader inside the dressing room.”

Benoit has spent parts of four seasons and over 200 regular season games in the Western Hockey League (WHL). He began his career with the Kootenay Ice in 2010-2011 and won the Ed Chynoweth Cup that spring. He spent part of three seasons with the Ice before being moved to the 2013 Memorial Cup hosts, the Saskatoon Blades midway through last year. Between Kootenay and Saskatoon in 2012-2013, Benoit collected 12 goals and 34 points in 64 regular season games. In two Memorial Cup tournaments, he picked up three assists in nine games. In four WHL seasons, Benoit amassed 36 goals and 88 points in 213 regular season games. He also played in 23 career playoff games, picking up a goal and three points.

The Vees traded Brendan Lamont, who they acquired from the Trail Smoke Eaters in mid-November, to the Coquitlam Express to make room for Benoit. In dealing Lamont, the Vees re-acquired Mike Rebry who is playing in his freshman season at Western Michigan University.

Benoit makes his Vees debut tonight in Merritt and will wear 23.

Ice chips: Former Vee Zac Dalpe scored his first goal as a Canuck during a 4-2 loss against the Tampa Bay Lightning on Jan. 1. Dalpe’s goal had tied the game at two … BCHL grad and former Vee Michael Garteig has been named ECAC Hockey goalie of the week again. He went 1-0-1 during the UConn Hockey Classic to record a .936 save percentage and 0.96 goals against average. He stopped 19 of 21 shots in a tie against UMass.