|Columbia Inferno goaltender Jeff Jakaitis rebounded from a slow start to become a solid contributer to his teams' playoff run.
It was only a few years ago when Jeff Jakaitis was at Lake Superior State on a hockey scholarship. He was going to use that free ride to take him into the real world.
It turns out there's been a change in plans.
The 24-year-old goaltender is close to completing what has been a solid rookie season with the Columbia Inferno, for whom he has made 36 appearances after signing a two-way deal with the Toronto Marlies of the American Hockey League last summer.
Jakaitis, whose numbers improved every year at Lake Superior State, is 12-14-6 with a 2.92 GAA for the playoff-bound Inferno.
"To be honest with you, I never really thought I'd have the opportunity to play professionally until maybe my junior year of college," Jakaitis told NHL.com. "After high school, I wanted to try to get a scholarship and get an education. If I could use hockey to pay for it, that'd be great. I ended up playing two years in junior (with USHL Waterloo), hoping to get a scholarship. Once I got to Lake State, things went well. Growing up, it was always a goal, but I didn't know if it would be a realistic possibility."
Now that he's here, Jakaitis intends to make the most of this opportunity. After early season struggles, the Rochester, Minn., native has turned his game around while adjusting to life as a pro.
"I guess in general, I think it's been OK," Jakaitis said of his rookie season. "I didn't get off to a very good start. I was pretty disappointed with my first 10-game segment. I think it was kind of tough for me adjusting to the schedule and travel. The different lifestyle was tough.
"After Christmas, I got to play a good chunk of games in a row. I feel like I've kind of settled in a little bit more. But it's been a pretty tough year. I had a lot higher expectations coming in for sure."
It's that competitive edge that burns inside Jakaitis that Columbia coach Troy Mann couldn't help but rave about. Mann was especially impressed with the way Jakaitis performed earlier this season when the latter's counterpart, Todd Ford
, was promoted to AHL Toronto.
"He competes; he hates to lose," Mann said. "Every goal, regardless of how it was scored, he thinks it should have been stopped. You like to have that in a goaltender."
With both Jakaitis and Ford in the mix, Mann has a nice problem on his hands. While Ford has more experience -- the 6-foot-4 netminder is in his fourth professional season -- Mann said he will give both goalies a chance to showcase their skills in the Kelly Cup Playoffs. Both goalies have appeared in 36 games for the Inferno this season.
"Absolutely. Jakko started 13 of 14 at one point because Ford was up with the Marlies," Mann said. "Other than that, we've rotated back and forth. There's been a couple of occasions where if a guy got hot and won a couple in a row, I stuck with them. We've got five games to go here. We'll just have to see what we're going to do come the first game of the playoffs."
Jakaitis first heard about Columbia from Inferno forward Steve McJannett and defenseman Ren Fauci, who retired in November. McJannett and Fauci played with Jakaitis at Lake Superior State and helped Mann along during the recruiting process last summer. Once Columbia's AHL affiliate jumped in with a contract offer, Jakaitis made up his mind as to where he would begin his professional career.
|Jeff Jakaitis has appeared in 36 games so far in his rookie season.
"The scouts in Toronto liked him a lot," Mann said. "I had talked to Toronto in the spring about Jeff. We spoke a lot last summer. The fact that he had a couple of former teammates at least give him a little bit of knowledge about Columbia and about the program helped."
While he hasn't received a promotion to the AHL this season, Mann believes Jakaitis could find himself at the Triple-A level next year. The Marlies have an option on his contract for 2008-09, but Jakaitis isn't about to look that far ahead.
"That's obviously the hope," Jakaitis said of moving up the ladder. "That's the goal and that's why everyone's still playing. I'm just basically trying to take it one week at a time, one month at a time, one year at a time. I'm just trying to get better every day. There's a lot that happens out there that's out of your control. Whatever happens will happen."
Good things would certainly happen for Jakaitis should he play well in the postseason if given the opportunity by Mann. The 5-foot-10, 165-pound netminder knows what a postseason run could do for his career.
"That's the main things that goalies are judged on," Jakaitis said. "That would help a ton for next year and down the road. If you can have success in the playoffs, there's always going to be a place for you to play. If the opportunity arises and I do get a chance to play some games, I think that would help out a lot."
Contact Brian Compton at: email@example.com.