Witkowski Doing Dirty Work for Crunch

By Jeremy Houghtaling

Luke Witkowski showed little hesitation in getting his hands dirty.

During a stoppage in the final minute of the third period during a game in Binghamton Saturday, a squid -- apparently thrown from the stands -- ended up on the ice. The Syracuse Crunch defenseman and avid outdoorsman took off his glove to pick up the sea creature, gave it a quick whirl as he pondered what to do with it, and sent it flying back into the stands.

“I noticed the refs were skating away from it and no one was grabbing it, so I thought I’d chuck it back up to where it came from,” Witkowski said.

Witkowski is no stranger to doing the necessary dirty work on the ice, and is now focused on improving his game with by logging big minutes in the American Hockey League to make the next step to the National Hockey League.

“To me, he’s the ultimate team guy,” Crunch head coach Rob Zettler said of the 25-year-old. “He’s a real competitor, he plays his game hard, and he plays his game tough.”

Witkowski has spent most of this season on the Crunch’s top pairing with 2012 first-rounder Slater Koekkoek. Syracuse is on a four-game point streak and sits in fourth place in the North Division with a 19-15-7-1 record.

“It’s been the same with the team, with some ups and downs just like any other season,” the stay-at-home defenseman said. “Me and (Koekkoek) complement each other really well. I like playing him, and we’ve been doing well as of late.”

Witkowski has registered one goal, seven assists and 42 penalty minutes in 36 games with Syracuse this season. The 6-3, 214-pounder has picked up two fighting majors this season -- down from eight last year and 11 the year before -- but that doesn’t mean he’s been any easier to play against.

“I’ve got a bigger body I guess, and I battle in the corners and fight when I need to,” Witkowski said. “I’m not really a point guy, so I’ve got to bring whatever I can to the table.”

Witkowski’s play earned him a four-game call-up to Tampa Bay earlier this season, where he recorded four penalty minutes and an even plus-minus in limited ice time. The brief stint helped show him he needed to be faster moving the puck.

“I have to make the play that’s there and make it quick,” the 2008 sixth-rounder said. “The game at the NHL level is a lot faster. As far as gaining experience, those four games were nice. I wish I could’ve played more minutes, but I’m getting plenty down here.”

After finishing up his senior season at Western Michigan University, Witkowski made his pro debut and played in three games with the Crunch in 2012-13. He totaled 12 points and 204 penalty minutes in his first full season in 2013-14, and finished with eight points and 95 penalty minutes in 50 games with Syracuse the next season.

Witkowski got his first taste of the NHL with 16 games last season, and is putting in the work to find a spot in the Lightning’s lineup. Until then, Zettler sees Witkowski as a valuable team player who makes life rough for his opponents.

“He’s always the first one in when something goes down with a teammate,” Zettler said. “He’s always battling in front of the net and battling in the corners. With Luke, that’s never a question. That’s what makes him a great teammate.”

Pictured: Crunch defenseman Luke Witkowski passes the puck against the Bears at the Onondaga County War Memorial on Jan. 9.