Witkowski joined the Lightning on Friday from the Bolts’ AHL affiliate in Syracuse after defenseman Matt Carle was sidelined indefinitely.
Witkowski, a 6-foot-2, 200-pound blue liner skates well and plays physically, an attribute the Lightning are lacking following the loss of Radko Gudas (knee surgery) for the remainder of the regular season. The Holland, Mich., native will have his parents, brother and girlfriend in the stands for tonight’s debut.
“It feels like a lot of work has gone into this day, so I’m just really looking forward to it and trying to take it all in,” he said.
Witkowski was drafted by the Lightning in the sixth round (160th overall) of the 2008 NHL Entry Draft. He played four seasons collegiately at Western Michigan, where he skated in 152 games and posted 38 points.
Last season for Syracuse, Witkowski scored two goals, assisted on 10 others and accumulated 204 penalty minutes in 76 games. After an impressive training camp with the Lightning this year that saw him challenge for a roster spot before ultimately being sent back to Syracuse during the last round of cuts, Witkowski has again been a standout for the Crunch this season, playing in 36 games and recording 75 penalty minutes.
“I’ve been in this organization for seven years,” Witkowski said. “There’s only a couple other guys that have been with them that long…I’ve only been playing pro hockey for two years. I was fortunate enough to be drafted in 2008. They’ve liked me enough to hold onto me.”
Witkowski joined the Lightning earlier this season when Victor Hedman went down for an extended period but didn’t see any game action. With Gudas sidelined and now Carle out until March, Witkowski will get his opportunity now to prove he belongs in the NHL.
“He’s an NHL skater, NHL size, NHL puck skills, he just needs some experience and figure out how he can define his role at this level,” Lightning associate coach Rick Bowness said. “We know how we want him to play, and then it’ll just be working closely with him every day to make sure he plays the role we need him to play for us and play to his strength.”
Tampa Bay can tie an all-time record for most consecutive home victories set during the 2005-06 season with a win over Vancouver tonight.
The Lightning have won seven in a row and can grab No. 8 in the team’s final game before the All-Star break.
“We’ve had…a lot of recent success here, and it just seems like guys are comfortable here in front of the home fans,” Lightning captain Steven Stamkos said. “It’s a great atmosphere here. The rink has been pumping. If you can get off to quick starts, there have been a lot of close games. It seems we play our best hockey when it’s tight. We have to expect that coming in tonight as well.”
All seven games on the current run have been one-goal victories. The Lightning extended the streak to seven on Saturday against Colorado, defeating the Avalanche 3-2 in a shootout.
“We’re getting timely goals at home. All of a sudden, Stralman throws one at the net, and it goes through,” Bowness said, referring to Anton Stralman’s go-ahead goal in the third period versus Colorado. “So, we’re getting some hockey breaks, but we’re getting all the little things you need to win games at home that we haven’t been consistent enough on the road.”
In five of the seven home victories, the Lightning have scored the game’s first goal. They’ll hope to start fast again versus a Vancouver team that has won three in a row, including two by shutout.
“I know it’s the last game before the break, but we want to finish what we’ve started here at home, which has been playing very well in front of our fans,” Stamkos said.
On Monday, the Lightning learned they would be without the services of stalwart blue liner Matt Carle for six to eight weeks.
Carle, who had played in 347 consecutive regular season games before missing Saturday’s Colorado contest, will have surgery today in Philadelphia to repair torn adductor muscles in his lower abdomen. Carle was injured midway through the Bolts’ 3-2 victory over Edmonton on Thursday.
“We’ve done a great job of dealing with (injuries) in previous years and this year losing (Victor Hedman) for some time,” Stamkos said. “Guys are going to have to step up. There’s no real other option right now. You’ve got to go down the depth chart a little bit. Guys are going to play a little more and just maybe as a forward group be a little more conscious of playing well defensively, help a couple of the young guys out and hope for the best.”
Asked what the team will miss most with Carle out of the lineup, Bowness suggested the 11-year NHL veteran brought a consistency to the rink that few can match.
“He plays 20 minutes a night and you know exactly what he’s going to do,” Bowness said. “(He’s) very reliable. Every defense in this league makes mistakes. Matty’s are few. He moves the puck well. His positional play is strong. He’s out there every night…We all respect and appreciate the way he plays.”
Carle is the second Tampa Bay defenseman to fall victim to injury in the past few weeks. On January 6, Radko Gudas had knee surgery, which will sideline him for the remainder of the regular season.