Witkowski makes NHL debut for Lightning

OUT OF ACTION: Matt Carle, left, will miss at least six weeks after abdominal surgery. Luke Witkowski debuted Tuesday in his place. Getty Images
OUT OF ACTION: Matt Carle, left, will miss at least six weeks after abdominal surgery. Luke Witkowski debuted Tuesday in his place.Getty Images
Published January 21 2015
Updated January 21 2015

TAMPA — D Luke Witkowski said he had happy nerves heading into Tuesday's NHL debut.

"I couldn't even fall asleep in the pregame nap," he said.

But once Witkowski stepped on the ice for his first shift, it felt like "just another hockey game." And it showed with Witkowski, 24, delivering a solid performance in 14:21.

"He did everything we asked him," coach Jon Cooper said. "I thought he was safe, he made all the plays he had to make, never got himself in trouble. I really didn't notice him that much, which is a great sign."

Witkowski, 24, a sixth-round pick in 2008, was one of the last cuts in camp and is in his second callup this season. The Holland, Mich., native's parents, brother and girlfriend were at Amalie Arena for his first game.

"It was a great experience," Witkowski said. "Everything I thought it would be."

With D Matt Carle out 6-8 weeks following Tuesday's abdominal surgery, Witkowski could get an extended look. Witkowski, at 6 feet 2, 213 pounds, brings a physical element the team has missed without D Radko Gudas, who will miss the regular season due to knee surgery. Witkowski started the game paired with fellow rookie D Nikita Nesterov but also played with veterans D Jason Garrison and D Victor Hedman.

"Awesome," Garrison said of Witkowski. "He helped me tremendously."

Stepping in: The Lightning knows what it'll miss in Carle.

"He plays 20 minutes a night and you know exactly what he's going to do," associate coach Rick Bowness said. "Very reliable."

"Matt is a veteran guy, a calming presence," captain Steven Stamkos said. "He makes plays under pressure. It's going to be tough for guys to step up and totally fill his shoes."

It will be a group effort in filling the shoes, and minutes, of Carle and Gudas — with young defensemen like D Mark Barberio and Nesterov getting expanded roles.

Bowness said what the Lightning has to be careful about is managing minutes. He said he has a "ballpark figure" on the maximum minutes each defensemen should play to be effective.

"You try to avoid going over it because that effects their play not only that game but down the road," Bowness said.

With Carle a key penalty killer, and having played some power play recently, others will have to step in. Stamkos said forwards have to make a concerted effort to help defensively.

"Guys are going to have to step up, there's no real other option," Stamkos said.

Close call: C Tyler Johnson, a native of Spokane, Wash., was still stunned over his Seahawks' come-from-behind victory Sunday in the NFC Championship Game against the Packers.

Johnson watched some of it while playing bubble hockey during Sunday's Bolts Family Carnival before hustling to watch the rest at home.

"It was unbelievable," Johnson said. "I thought it was over. I almost turned it off, like, 'Let's go do something.' But I'm glad I watched it."

Ice chips: G Ben Bishop started his fourth straight game. Barberio and RW J.T. Brown were scratched.

Contact Joe Smith at joesmith@tampabay.com. Follow @TBTimes_JSmith.

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