The first experience in the North Charleston Coliseum for South Carolina Stingrays goalie Jeff Jakaitis is one he would like forget.
TonightWho: Idaho vs. StingraysTime: 7:05 p.m.Tickets: 744-2248Saturday Who: Orlando vs. StingraysWhat: ‘Pack the House’ NightTime: 7:05 p.m.SundayWho: Orlando vs. StingraysTime: 3:05 p.m.
Jakaitis made his professional debut with the Columbia Inferno during the 2007-08 season on the Stingrays’ home ice.
He can still remember being a little nervous when he took the ice that late October night. He also remembers each of the four goals he allowed during the first period as the Inferno lost 7-3 to the Stingrays.
“It’s not exactly the kind of start you’d want to your professional career,” said Jakaitis with a chuckle. “There was a time, early in my career, when I didn’t like playing here, but now it’s one of my favorite places to play.”
That’s because Jakaitis, 29, is finally suiting up for the home team.
For the past three years, Jakaitis, the reigning ECHL goalie of the year, has been trying to get into a Stingrays uniform. Until this season, circumstances seemed to conspire against a union between Jakaitis and the Stingrays. Jakaitis, now in his sixth professional season, has played for just about every team in the ECHL’s South Division except the Stingrays. He spent a season each in Columbia (2007-08), Charlotte (2008-09) and Gwinnett (2011-12).
Jakaitis’ interest in the Stingrays and the Lowcountry began during his playing days in Columbia, where he met his girlfriend and the mother of his 2-year-old son Liam.
“Charleston and the Stingrays just makes the most sense logistically,” Jakaitis said. “I want to be around Liam as much as I can. Unfortunately, South Carolina always had a good affiliation with Washington, and it seemed like they’d get a goalie or two from them every year. Either that or I was under contract with an American (Hockey) League team, so it seemed like we could never work anything out.”
Jakaitis called South Carolina head coach Spencer Carbery in the summer of 2011, but there was no room on the Stingrays’ roster for another goalie.
He signed with Gwinnett instead and had a career season — a 17-6-2 record with a 2.03 goals against average while leading the Gladiators to the division title. Despite suffering a season-ending knee injury in mid-February, Jakaitis was the easy choice for goalie of the year in the ECHL.
During a three-game stretch against the Stingrays last year, Jakaitis recorded three consecutive shutouts.
“I remember coming back into the office and thinking we were never going to score on him,” Carbery said. “We were getting great scoring chances and he wasn’t giving anything up. He was making very difficult saves look routine.”
Carbery wasted no time calling Jakaitis in November when Stingrays starting goalie Ryan Zapolski was called up to the AHL.
“Things couldn’t have worked out any better for me,” Jakaitis said.
After a couple of shaky starts, Jakaitis has returned to form, compiling a 4-3-2 mark with a 2.20 goals against average and a .920 save percentage.
“I’m not all the way back from the injury, that might take six more months, but I’m getting more and more comfortable out there with every start,” Jakaitis said. “I couldn’t be happier right now on and off the ice. It took me a while to get here, but I’m here and that’s all that matters.”