By: Will Burchfield

Even after another frustrating loss, this one 2-1 in overtime to the Panthers, Jimmy Howard couldn’t fight back a smile when asked about Luke Witkowksi.

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“He’s a gritty player, he’s a tough guy and it’s great to have him back in the lineup,” Howard said.

Making his return from a 10-game suspension on Monday night, Witkowski dropped the gloves twice with Michael Haley, the league leader in fighting majors. Witkowski even wanted to go a third time, but Haley declined due to an injured hand. (You don’t say.)

The bushy-bearded Witkowski prefers hunting deer to throwing fists — his camouflage Red Wings’ hat is a staple — but he understands his role on the ice. And he knows what a good scrap can do for his teammates.

“Personally, whether I was playing in the minors or in the NHL, if we had a guy that’s fighting it fires you up, fires the crowd up and gets the blood boiling,” said Witkowski. “I guess that’s part of my job description, so just try to help out.”

Witkowski is as unassuming a fighter as there ever was. He speaks softly. He neither issues threats nor pounds his chest. His eyes darn near twinkle. On the ice, he simply tries to play hard and through the whistle. If that results in someone wanting to drop the gloves, so be it.

He figured Haley would challenge him at some point on Monday night.

“It’s in the back of your head. You don’t want to go in expecting it, but in my style of play I’m going to finish my checks and those guys are going to come after you, so you obviously know it’s going to happen,” Witkowski said.

That was exactly the case toward the end of the first period, as Witkwoski bodied Haley along the boards in the Red Wings’ zone shortly after Haley had moved the puck. That was all the prodding Haley needed.

“He just kind of came after me,” Witkowski said. “I think he probably figured I was going to come after him at some point. No bad blood, he knows his job and I guess I know mine.”

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Haley, who entered the game with nine fighting majors, got the better of Witkowski at first, but Witkowski landed a couple of blows toward the end.

They squared off again in the second period, this time after Witkowski buried Panthers assistant captain Aaron Eklbad at the Red Wings’ blue line and Haley took exception by slashing him in the back of the leg.

Witkowski finished the night with just 4:28 of ice time — “I was in the penalty box most of the game,” he said with a bashful grin — but the Wings felt his presence when he was out there.

“Luke gives us energy,” said head coach Jeff Blashill. “I think our guys like having him in the lineup. I think they feel like there’s some protection out there, and we haven’t had that here much in a long time. I think it’s an important element to have and I think he’s somebody that picks our team up in those situations.”

The Red Wings’ other Luke followed suit. Not known for his fighting chops, Luke Glendening dropped the gloves with Ekblad late in the second period, never mind Ekblad’s five-inch height advantage. Glendening swung like a madman, landed a flurry of hard rights, drove Ekblad to the ice and then skated to the penalty box smiling and bleeding from his nose.

I just didn’t want to get killed, trying to protect myself out there,” said Glendening. “That guy’s a lot bigger than me, so I was just trying to make sure I didn’t get hit too many times.”

In similar fashion to Howard, Witkowski couldn’t resist smiling when asked about the first regular season fight of Glendening’s career.

“I was pumped up,” said Witkwoski. “I’ve never seen him fight before, and that was a really good fight. I don’t know if I’d fight him.”

The pluck of Witkowski and Glendening was ultimately wasted as the Red Wings’ skill players, yet again, squandered too many chances and the Panthers stole the game in overtime. It’s becoming a theme for this team to play well enough to win only to end up with a loss.

“I’m still wondering how we lost that game,” said Witkowki. “I don’t know how many grade-A scoring chances we had. (James) Reimer did a really good job tonight, I think he won them the game. It’s frustrating.”

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Still, it couldn’t subdue a few smiles in the dressing room afterward. In an era of speed, finesse and fancy stats galore, it’s impossible not to appreciate some old-time hockey.