Both players got through the hard part of earning two of the vacant roster spots out of training camp. But then they were asked to be patient for their playing opportunities. Both were healthy scratches in the season opener.
On Saturday, their wait will come to end. Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville confirmed both will make their regular-season debuts against the Tampa Bay Lightning on Saturday night.
“I’m excited, definitely excited,” Kostka said Saturday morning. “Coming into camp, there were a lot of question marks. Like I said, there were no guarantees coming in. Being able to stick out of camp, I was excited for that. Now, the next step is getting games, given there are eight defensemen here.”
Smith looked at playing Saturday as a chance to earn future ice time.
“I get a game and hopefully take advantage of the opportunity and show what I can do,” Smith said. “You certainly don’t want to rotate. You want to play every game. That’s the goal. The hope is to show what you can do when you get those opportunities and make those decisions tough for whoever has to make them.”
Both players do carry some NHL experience into the season. Kostka has played in 35 regular-season NHL games and one playoff game. Smith has played in 20 regular-season games and eight playoff games.
Old foes: Kostka was once a prospect in the Lightning’s system and helped their former AHL affiliate, the Norfolk Admirals, to a 28-game winning streak and a Calder Cup in the 2011-12 season. A number of Kostka’s Admirals teammates now play for the Lightning, and former Norfolk coach Jon Cooper now coaches Tampa Bay.
“It was 28 games in a row to finish the regular season, and we ended up sweeping the last two rounds of the playoffs,” Kostka said. “It was really an unbelievable run. The Hawks last year had a pretty awesome run as well. I wasn’t a part of that, but I can kind of understand what that might be like. It was really special group of guys. It’s no surprise they have a handful of them there and the coach is there as well.”
Hossa, Handzus improving: Quenneville expected forwards Michal Handzus and Marian Hossa to be more adjusted to game play Saturday. Handzus and Hossa sat out all six of the team’s preseason games while dealing with undisclosed injuries. They played in their first game in the season opener Tuesday.
“I thought they were all right in the first game,” Quenneville said. “We would expect them both to be getting better. You know, first game. Watching [Hossa] progress in practice, he looks like he’s getting quicker every day. Handzus looks like he’s progressing as well.”
Eastern Conference again: Eight of the Blackhawks’ first 10 games will be against Eastern Conference opponents. The only time the Blackhawks played against an Eastern Conference team last season was in the Stanley Cup finals against the Boston Bruins.
“I think [it’s good to play different teams], especially early in the season, a lot of Eastern Conference games,” Quenneville said. “How they’re going to play out, we’ll see. I think whether they’re more wide open or more unpredictable, that remains to be seen. I think at the same time players like playing against guys they don’t know much about and finding out as they go along. As a team, hopefully we can adapt in games as well.”