TORONTO — Tampa Bay Lightning defenseman Mike Kostka has no idea how, from deep in the offensive zone, he chose his path to the front of the net before slipping a backhand shot past future Hall of Fame goaltender Martin Brodeur.
“I blacked out, I was in no-man’s land,’’ Kostka said. “I don’t belong down there.’’
Where Kostka, 28, does belong these days is in the NHL, though his path there also was unconventional.
Undrafted after four years at the University of Massachusetts, Kostka played five seasons in the American Hockey League, including one partial season with Norfolk helping Tampa Bay’s top farm team win a Calder Cup championship in 2011-12.
But it wasn’t until last season that he found his way to the NHL, appearing in 35 games with the Toronto Maple Leafs. He started this season with Chicago and, after missing more than a month because of injury, was placed on waivers.
Tampa Bay claimed Kostka on Feb. 24 and reunited him with many of his former Norfolk teammates as well as Lightning head coach Jon Cooper, who led that Norfolk team to the championship.
Since finding his way into the Lightning lineup, Kostka (6-foot-1, 200 pounds) has proven a good fit on the third defensive pairing. He has two goals, three assists and is plus-4 while averaging 15 minutes, 12 seconds of ice time.
“He really excelled in the system we played (in Norfolk) and it’s really no different than we play up here,’’ Cooper said. “He’s a poise-under-pressure player with really good hockey sense.
“He just makes savvy plays, he calms things down, which is really much like his demeanor in life, he’s kind of the exact same way. So, sometimes you are familiar with somebody and have some knowledge in how they play and how they can fit in. When he was put on waivers, for us it was a no-brainer to get him back.’’
Though Kostka said there are subtle differences from when he played for Cooper at the AHL level, it didn’t take long for him to pick things up with the Lightning.
“It’s all different versions of systems that I’ve been in and played for a handful of teams now,” Kostka said, “but it is nice to come to a place that is fairly familiar in the way that Coop operates.’’
To some of his former Norfolk teammates, Kostka hasn’t missed a beat from two years ago.
“When we won the Calder Cup in Norfolk, he was a big part of the team and he’s a great defenseman,’’ winger Ondrej Palat said. “He’s gotten better and you can see every game he is getting better.’’
Wednesday night, Kostka returns to face the team that gave him his first shot in the NHL, as the Lightning play at Toronto in an important Atlantic Division game. It’s also close to his home of Etobicoke, Ontario, which is about 40 minutes from Toronto.
“It’s always fun to go back against teams that you played on once,’’ Kostka said. “It’s a special building for me where I got to start my NHL career. And I grew up outside of Toronto as well. ...It was really special for me to be able to start my career there and I have nothing but great experiences that I had.’’
As far as the “blackout’’ moments, they might not exactly be an out-of-body experience.
“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 where he was putting that in the net, but he had great instincts not to shoot it at (Brodeur) but by him.’’
All part of Kostka’s covert plan.
“I just can’t give away my secrets,’’ he said.