As January turned into February and teams began jockeying for playoff position, South Carolina Stingrays coach Spencer Carbery knew he needed to get goalie Jeff Jakaitis a little rest as the team headed toward the end of the regular season.
Orlando Solar Bears vs. South Carolina Stingrays
When: Friday, 7 p.m.
Where: North Charleston Coliseum
Records: Orlando 36-20-4 (76 points); Rays 37-19-5 (79 points)
But this wasn't exactly what Carbery had in mind.
Jakaitis missed a nearly a month of action from Feb. 22 to March 14 because of an undisclosed injury. The Stingrays' nearly insurmountable lead in the ECHL's South Division at the beginning of February began to shrink to a single point as they head into Friday night's game against second-place Orlando at the North Charleston Coliseum.
Going into that final week of February, Jakaitis was among the league leaders in appearances (37), wins (23), saves (955), goals against average (1.98) and save percentage (.929). Jakaitis had been a workhorse for the Stingrays during the first four months of the season and was also among the league leaders in minutes played at more than 2,200.
The heavy workload was bound to catch up to Jakaitis, who turns 31 in June, sooner rather than later.
The injury, however, could turn out to be a blessing in disguise for one of the ECHL's elite goaltenders. With 11 games left in the regular season, Jakaitis is rested and ready for the stretch run and the Kelly Cup playoffs.
"You never want to lose a goaltender like Jeff for any length of time because he's such a valuable player," Carbery said. "We were aware of the minutes he was playing and at his age, you've got to monitor those things. I don't think any injury is ever a good thing, but we needed to give Jeff a break and now I think he's ready to go."
Jakaitis isn't so sure. The 2012 ECHL Goalie of the Year said he's at his best when he's playing a lot.
"You never want to get hurt, but at the same time getting some rest this late in the season might not be the worst thing that could have happened to me," Jakaitis said. "I'm 100 percent now. I feel good. Mentally and physically I feel sharp. But to go three weeks without playing a game is tough. I find I play my best hockey when I play a lot and I can get into a rhythm of feeling good and playing good."
Jakaitis was back on the ice this past Friday night against Gwinnett, but gave up four goals in a 4-1 loss to the Gladiators. It wasn't the kind of performance that the former Lake Superior State star had been hoping for.
"I think the layoff kind of effected my timing a little bit and that's something I've been working on in practice all week," Jakaitis said. "I feel good now. I'm ready to get back out there. I've been playing long enough to know what to do to take care of my body and make sure I'm rested when I'm called upon to play."
The significance of the Stingrays' two-game series with Orlando this weekend isn't lost on Jakaitis. The Solar Bears trail the Stingrays by a single point in the standings. This will be the final regular-season match-up between the two teams.
"These really are four-point games for us," Jakaitis said. "I think everyone realizes what's at stake this weekend. Points are really crucial this time of year."