Gwinnett Gladiators Bobby Hughes (24), looks to pass against South Carolina on Thursday afternoon at the Arena at Gwinnett Center (Photo: Amanda Hertel)
DULUTH — Jeff Jakaitis was the ECHL’s goaltender of the year for Gwinnett two seasons ago, but he’s been even better this season.
Unfortunately for the Gladiators, he plays for the South Carolina Stingrays now.
Jakaitis improved to 5-0 against Gwinnett and 17-1-2-2 overall as the South Division-leader South Carolina posted a 4-1 victory on Thursday before a matinee crowd of 3,849 in the Arena at Gwinnett Center.
South Carolina has 10 players in the AHL, but still boosts the best mark in the ECHL with 49 points thanks to Jakaitis and the defense in front of him.
The Minnesota native posted a 2.03 goals-against average and .930 save percentage when Gwinnett won the South Division two seasons ago. He is at 1.55 and .944 this season with the Stingrays.
“I don’t really know, to be honest with you,” the 30-year-old said when asked if this is the best he’s played in his 10-year pro career. “I try to go one game at a time. I’ll wait until the summer to look back and maybe compare then when my work is done.”
Jakaitis didn’t have to do as much as usual against the Gladiators, facing only 22 shots.
“Everybody has just bought in,” Jakaitis said of his team’s defensive mindset. “Guys are coming to work every game. They are blocking shots, coming back hard, picking up sticks in front of the net. Everyone is doing whatever it takes.”
South Carolina (23-5-1-2) has dropped just three of his past 16 games, with two of the losses coming against the last-place Gladiators (10-19-0-2).
Jakaitis, who has given up eight goals in five games against Gwinnett, wasn’t in net for either loss, though, and he’d be back between the pipes tonight when the teams play again in South Carolina.
The Gladiators got off to an encouraging — although short-lived — start Thursday. Bobby Hughes beat a screened Jakaitis from the right circle for a power-play goal seven minutes into the game, ending the goalie’s bid for a third straight shutout.
The lead lasted just 38 seconds, though, and the Stingrays added a second goal with six minutes left in the first period. Kyle Bodie scored off a Gladiators turnover for the first goal and then Patrick Gaul beat Gwinnett goalie Paul Karpowich from between the circles for the second.
Then Wayne Simpson knocked in a rebound barely a minute into the second period and South Carolina had a two-goal lead.
The Stingrays had 14 shots in the first period and 17 in the second, out-shooting the Gladiators 31-17 going into the final period.
South Carolina, who finished with 41 shots, completed the scoring with an empty-net goal from Igor Gongalsky with 55 seconds remaining.
Jakaitis injured a knee with Gwinnett late in the 2011-12 season and didn’t sign with South Carolina until December of last season.
This year the Stingrays are really benefiting, with the rest of the ECHL struggling to get the puck past the veteran netminder.
Thursday’s game was Jakaitis’ second victory over the Gladiators in Gwinnett this season, the other 4-2 on Dec. 20.
“It’s a familiar environment, but sometimes coming back to where you played can be a distraction, too,” Jakaitis said. “But I enjoyed my time here in Gwinnett and it is always nice to see a few familiar faces in an opposing arena.”
Notes: The Gladiators host Florida on Saturday night, concluding a stretch of five games in seven days. … Gwinnett shipped rookie forward Jeremie Malouin to Cincinnati to complete the Mike Emback deal from Nov. 13. Malouin had one goal and six assists in 30 games with Gwinnett. … Gladiators defenseman Rob Kwiet, who had an assist and seven shots, played in his 275th pro game. … Gwinnett captain Joey Haddad is four games away from 200 in the ECHL. … Simpson had two assists in addition to his goal for South Carolina.