Justin Michaelian (11) is tied for the Victoria Grizzlies team lead in goals with seven. The Grizzlies visit the Penticton Vees at the South Okanagan Events Centre on Saturday at 6 p.m. Spencer Pickles/Black Press

Vees penalty kill killing opposition

Penticton Vees have B.C. Hockey League’s second-best PK thanks to depth

The Penticton Vees penalty killing units have been a pain for B.C. Hockey League opposition.

A change in approach has them owning the second-best penalty kill allowing four goals on 33 chances. Efficient 87.9 per cent of the time.

“We’re a little bit more aggressive. I think when the penalty kill is more aggressive, it’s for sure harder to set up,” said Vees co-captain Grant Cruikshank as they prepare to hit the road Friday for Merritt. “Certain guys will tend to panic in those situations if you are on the PP. The aggressive style has lent to more turnovers, more bobbled pucks for the other team. We have got a great group of guys on the PK. If those guys are in the box, we have other guys who can step in. We got a really deep team that can kind of do it all.”

Vees coach-general manager Fred Harbinson credited their success to having several players good at killing penalties.

“Most of our D have a good understanding of what we want to accomplish. We probably have nine-plus forwards that can do it,” he said. “The penalty kill is all about energy and pressuring pucks at the right time. If you are tired, it’s going to be hard to do. We have been able to spread our penalty killing over a number of guys. It seems like everybody is doing their part, taking their piece and running with it.”

Harbinson said they are also doing a good job of pre-scouting teams. He added that special teams go in waves, and teams will make adjustments.

West Kelowna has the best penalty kill at 90.4 per cent, allowing five goals on 52 opportunities.

The Centennials do not possess a dangerous power play, striking 13.5 per cent of the time. That percentage increases to 19.4 per cent at the Nicola Valley Memorial Arena, where they have scored seven times (seven different players) on 39 chances. The Grizzlies (the Vees’ Saturday opponent) meanwhile, have executed 20 per cent of the time on the road, going four-for-28.

Cruikshank said the success allows them to play “a little bit more on edge,” but added they have to stay on the right side of that line where they are not taking stupid penalties.

“Some of those physical penalties is going to come. Being on that edge and playing physical and roughing it up in the corner,” he said. “It’s great to know that the guys on our PK are going to kill it off if we do get a penalty. It just builds a little more confidence for our group.”

While the Centennials have three wins in 11 games, placing them 15th in the 17-team BCHL, Cruikshank said they have to ignore Merritt’s record. Cruikshank said any team can win any time. Plus, he hasn’t forgotten that the Centennials pushed the Vees to seven games in the Fred Page Cup playoffs last season. The Cents have nine returnees.

“There is a built up rivalry now because of that. I think it’s just the veteran guys have to kind of bring that to the newer guys. The younger guys get that instilled in them,” he said. “It’s always hard to win in Merritt.”

On Saturday, the Vees, fourth in the Canadian Junior Hockey League rankings, welcome the Grizzlies, 7-3-0, to the South Okanagan Events Centre. Game time is 6 p.m.

“They are a really skilled team. Really fast. They like to play a certain way, just like us,” said Cruikshank. “Those games are always super exciting to play in. Really fun to be a part of.”

Alex Newhook leads the Grizzlies with a goal and 12 points in 10 games. Ethan Nother and Justin Michaelian, lead with seven snipes each. Goalie Zachary Rose has five wins in seven games with a .933 save percentage.

The Vees will still be without Greg Brydon, Taylor Ward and now Joey Leahy indefinitely with a concussion. He was injured against the Vernon Vipers from a late high hit by Jesse Lansdell. A request for supplemental discipline by the Vees resulted in a four-game suspension.

Off the ice, the Vees are already collecting pieces for next season’s roster. Cole Shepard, a 2002-born forward has committed for 2018 and will be an affiliate player for the remainder of the 2017-18 season. The West Vancouver native plays for Delta Academy Prep in the Canadian Sport School Hockey League. In 10 games he has rung up five goals and 10 assists. In the 2016-17 season with the Delta Bantam team, Shepard recorded 19 goals and 28 assists in 30 games.

“Cole is an outstanding young talent who will fit very well into the way we play in Penticton,” said Harbinson, in a team statement.

For Shepard, the success and pedigree of the Vees franchise was too good of an opportunity to pass up.

“This is an organization that’s known throughout junior hockey as one of the best places to play,” Shepard said. “Fred, the rest of the coaching staff and the facilities are top notch. I’m a fast, creative guy who likes putting up points, but I know I have to crack down on defence too.”

Shepard was named to Team B.C. for the newly-branded WHL Cup, formerly known as the Western Canada U-16 Challenge Cup. The event features the highest-rated players in the under-16 age category from the provinces of Alberta, B.C., Manitoba and Saskatchewan. The tournament takes place from Oct. 18-22 in Calgary. Vees assistant coach Jason Becker will serve in the same position for Team B.C. in the WHL Cup.

Shepard is available as an affiliate for up to five games during the regular season. Once his season with Delta comes to an end, he can suit up with the Vees regularly.

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