So, exactly what was Lightning defenseman Mike Kostka doing so deep in the offensive zone Saturday against the Devils?
Kostka scored with a backhand past future Hall of Fame goaltender Martin Brodeur as part of Tampa Bay's 3-0 victory. But Kostka acted as if his positioning was a fluke or a mistake.
"I just blacked out," he said.
"I was in no-man's land. I don't belong there."
To which Lightning coach Jon Cooper just had to smile.
"Mike Kostka has a real mind for the game," Cooper said. "So Mike Kostka knew exactly where he was going. I'm not so sure Mike Kostka knew he was putting that in the net, but he had great instincts not to shoot it at (Brodeur), but by him."
This is a heady time for Kostka, 28, whom Tampa Bay picked up off waivers from the Blackhawks on Feb. 23. In eight games with the Lightning he has two goals, five points, 10 blocked shots and is plus-4 while averaging 15:11 of ice time.
And while tonight's game with the Maple Leafs at the Air Canada Centre will be special for someone who grew up in the Toronto suburb of Etobicoke rooting for the Leafs, returning with his career on solid footing makes it that much better.
"I'm as prepared as I've ever been," Kostka said. "I also have a coach who knows my strengths and limitations and will use me accordingly."
"He's happy-go-lucky, but don't let that fool you. He's worked real hard to get here," said Cooper, who coached Kostka at AHL Norfolk during the Admirals' 2011-12 Calder Cup run. "But he's one of those guys who has life in perspective. He's been a great add."
Kostka, 6 feet 1, 210 pounds, was undrafted after playing from 2004-08 at the University of Massachusetts, where he earned a psychology degree. He has played five AHL seasons, 35 games with Toronto in 2012-13 — "It was awesome to be able to start my career there," he said — and nine this season with Chicago.
"It keeps you sharp, keeps you hungry," Kostka said of his long road to the NHL. "When you're not drafted, you're kind of fighting from behind a little bit. In the initial organizations, I really didn't have anybody pulling for me to make it to the next level."
That said, "The process of years of getting feedback and watching video and making adjustments, I've been able to round it out to what I like to think is an all-around game."
And with Cooper's knowledge of Kostka's game and Kostka's knowledge of Cooper's system, Kostka might be in his best position to succeed.
"He moves pucks, and he has poise under pressure," Cooper said. "Things can be hairy around him and he's still able to make a play."
Such as the one he made when he scored against the Devils.
"I jumped off the bench and essentially treated it as being a forward on the play," Kostka said, and added, "It's a great league and not the easiest thing to score in orthodox ways, so you try to create things."
Kind of like how he is creating his career.
"Every game is something I feel I have to earn," said Kostka, who between the Blackhawks and Lightning has four goals and eight points in 17 games. "It's been a great start and an exciting team to be part of; building toward the playoffs. I'm just excited to do whatever I can to help the team reach that goal."
Damian Cristodero can be reached at [email protected]