Detroit — Are NHL referees keeping an extra-special focus on Red Wings enforcer Luke Witkowski?
It sure seemed like it Tuesday in the Red Wings’ 4-2 loss to Dallas.
Witkowski was on the wrong end of two questionable penalties — both of which led to Jason Spezza power-play goals, leading to the Dallas victory.
“I don’t know that he is getting a reputation, I haven’t seen that before (Tuesday),” coach Jeff Blashill said of referees paying special attention to Witkowski. “Maybe I’m dead wrong, I don’t know. I can’t get inside people’s brains and vice versa. I can tell you this — he’s a good hard-nosed hockey player that can fill a couple of different roles. When I think it’s best for him to be in the lineup, I’ll put him in the lineup.”
Witkowski was suspended for 10 games earlier this season against Calgary when he returned to the ice after being told to leave after a fight against the Flames.
Witkowski was a physical presence for the Tampa Bay Lightning, before signing with the Red Wings on July 1, but always was viewed as a player who also can do more than simply protect a teammate.
He is able to play both forward and defense, and a player who is strong on the forecheck and finishes his checks. Witkowski, too, feels he’s an “honest” player.
“I’m not a dirty player,” Witkowski said. “I had the suspension, but I don’t throw elbows, I don’t hit guys in the numbers. I’d like to think I’m pretty honest.”
In the first period Tuesday, Witkowski was penalized for elbowing Martin Hanzal — though replays showed the two players never made contact (think New Orleans Saints player Marcus Williams on Sunday on that game’s infamous final play).
“(It’s) a quick play, he’s on his knees, I think I let up on him,” Witkowski said of the elbowing. “I don’t think I got him with my elbow, but I can’t say I did or didn’t.”
Blashill could live with that particular penalty.
“The elbow call ... hockey is a fast game, things happen fast, the refs don’t get a chance to hit stop and rewind,” Blashill said. “He (Witkowski) didn’t touch him, but that happens. That’s going to happen sometimes.
“I get that.”
But in the second period, Witkowski was given an extra two minutes for roughing, though Stars defenseman Stephen Johns was the first player to drop the gloves in the fight.
“The second (penalty), he couldn’t call the instigator (penalty) because I didn’t instigate it, I didn’t touch him,” Witkowski said. “I don’t know how he can call it roughing.
“(Johns) even said in the penalty box that was a terrible call. I said (during the fight), ‘Do you want to go?’ If he (Johns) doesn’t want to fight, he doesn’t have to drop his gloves.
“I didn’t make him fight.”
Blashill complained passionately on the bench after the roughing call — which Dallas ultimately scored on, putting the Stars ahead for good.
“We want our guys to pursue the puck hard and Luke’s job is to make sure he’s physical on the forecheck and that he is skating hard,” Blashill said. “He’s already on his way. He wasn’t on the other side of the ice. He skates into the corner and he’s by Johns, (who) turns to him and Johns drops his gloves.
“They engage and Luke still has his gloves on and there’s a roughing penalty.
“The explanation I got was he (Witkowski) got a roughing penalty for forcing him to fight. To this moment I don’t understand at all how that’s a roughing penalty. I’m not sure if Luke’s expected to not defend himself there when the other guy drops his gloves first. Maybe he shouldn’t defend himself. I don’t know.”
Captain Henrik Zetterberg was puzzled by the roughing penalty.
“To me, the roughing call is a made-up call,” Zetterberg said. “Either it’s instigator or nothing. I don’t know where he got the extra two from. They both dropped the gloves at the same time.
“The first one (penalty) I don’t think he even hits him. As a player you have bad games sometimes. So do the refs.”
Blashill decided to sit Witkowski in the third period, fearing referees were going to focus on Witkowski, and the Red Wings didn’t need another penalty kill in a tight game.
“It looked like there were eyes out for him before the game started,” Blashill said. “I talked to him on the bench (before the third period), so he understood why I didn’t play him at the beginning part of the third just because it looked like if he did anything, it was going to be a penalty.
“(But) Luke’s got to do what Luke does in order to be effective — (and) he’s been a pretty effective player for us.”
Witkowski was adamant he’s not going to change the way he plays the game, but admitted he might need to be more careful.
“I have to stay out of the penalty box,” Witkowski said. “Try to stay out of positions (that) make it easy on the refs (to make) that call. It stinks both of them (Tuesday’s penalties) ended up in the back of our net.
“But I can’t change the way I play. That’s why I was signed here. I have to finish my checks.”