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Witkowski relishes role reversal in return to lineup

Hard-hitting Lightning defenseman shows he isn't afraid to pack a punch or mix up positions

by Bryan Burns /

Tampa Bay's Luke Witkowski and the New York Rangers' Tanner Glass stood toe-to-toe at center ice trading right-handed haymakers, mixing in an occasional left hook, clutching and clawing and scraping to try to land a knockout blow while the spectators inside AMALIE Arena stood and roared.

Approximately 55 seconds into the heavyweight bout, one that started with a flurry and maintained its breathtaking pace throughout, linesman Matt MacPherson approached Witkowski and Glass to put an end to the tilt.

Witkowski though, shook MacPherson off. The linesman backed away, and the pair continued to land blows for another 10 seconds before finally reaching an exhausted conclusion.

 "I wasn't tired yet," Witkowski would explain a day later as to why he kept the fight going. "I wanted to try and get a couple more punches in."

Following the game, Lightning head coach Jon Cooper along with teammate Victor Hedman lauded the burly defenseman for providing a spark in what Witkowski described as the longest fight he's ever been in.

Video: Witkowski on his performance against the Rangers

"I was glad to sit in the box for five minutes after that one," he joked.

Witkowski has been contributing in a number of different, and unexpected, areas for the Lightning since being inserted into the lineup for the last two games. Starting March 4 at Buffalo, Witkowski was asked to move up a few feet and play forward for the Lightning, joining Gabriel Dumont and Cedric Paquette on the Bolts' fourth line.

Witkowski earned 9:51 of ice time against the Sabres and followed it up with a shot and hit in 7:54 of action two days later at forward against the Rangers.

"He's our new Brian Boyle," Cooper said after the Rangers game when asked about Witkowski's role reversal. "Versatile player, and he's played forward before. What I liked though was his energy. He's skating. He's physical. He's intimidating. He had some great plays off the rush. They were crashing the net. He's big. He's heavy. I think in the two games he's played for us, whether he's been playing up or back, he's brought a lot of positive emotion to our team. It's been good."

Witkowski has found cracking the Lightning lineup difficult at times this season. Prior to the Buffalo contest, Witkowski was healthy scratched nine-consecutive games. He's played in just 18 games this season.

So when the Lightning coaching staff approached him about moving temporarily to right wing, a position change that might allow him to see more ice time, Witkowski was receptive.

"Obviously, I want to be playing, whether it's forward, D, goalie, I don't care," he said. "I want to be in the lineup. (Monday), I thought I was going to be playing defense. I was penciled in as defense before the game, and they called me up front."

Witkowski has adapted to his new role well. In addition to inspiring his teammates with his extended fisticuffs against Glass - a fight Witkowski called "a draw" a day later - the defenseman-turned-forward proved a handful on the forecheck and produced some quality scoring chances while leading the rush.

"I think I have enough speed and I can be big on the forecheck and hard to play against," Witkowski said. "It's going to take a while to get used to it. Just to be able to do that and (the coaches) to have the confidence in me to do that means a lot to me."

Witkowski's short-term experiment at forward could become a more extended stay depending on what the matchup dictates.

Video: Cooper on scoring chances and Witkowski

"That's a game by game depending on what our need is," Cooper said. "As you watched (Monday), he brings us a lot of energy. He makes us a little bigger, a little stronger, a little tougher. As you saw in that, when he and Glass got at it last night, we just really like what he brings both on the ice and in our locker room."

Witkowski is quiet and reserved by nature but well-respected by his teammates for his lead-by-example approach. Before the season, he was slated for AHL Syracuse and was named the Crunch's new captain. But he's only played 19 games in Syracuse, spending most of the 2016-17 season in limbo on the Lightning bench, where he's sat for 17 of the Bolts' last 24 games.

He'll likely get more looks in the Lightning lineup down the stretch of the regular season if he can continue to prove his versatility like he did Monday night versus the Rangers.

And if his usefulness at forward runs out, he has a Plan B too.

"I've played goalie before," he said, grinning. "I don't know if I can play it as well as Vasy, but I'll try."

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