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In a battle to avoid the Southeast Division basement, the Tampa Bay Lightning takes on the Atlanta Thrashers

TAMPA — As many times as the bait was dangled in front of Lightning players is as many times as it was ignored.

Tampa Bay faces the Thrashers tonight at the St. Pete Times Forum in a game that — in the standings anyway — has a little bit of juice.

The Lightning is last in the Southeast Division with 61 points. Atlanta, with 64, is one spot ahead.

If Tampa Bay is going to climb out of the cellar, a victory would go a long way to help.

But instead of focusing on the big game (hey, it's all relative), Lightning players focused on themselves.

"Everybody is sick and tied of being sick and tired," left wing Ryan Malone said. "It's our job to go out and execute the way we're capable of, and that's all you can ask for."

What Tampa Bay's coaching staff is asking of its players is not to self-destruct as they have the past two games.

"We want to put ourselves in a position to win each and every night," associate coach Mike Sullivan said. "It starts with controlling what you can — your emotions, your effort, your mind-set, your energy, your attitude, all those things. And then you have to use your brain out there."

The Lightning is in a difficult spot. Only 11 games remain in a second straight season without the playoffs.

Injuries have decimated the defense, the coaches have said they are in "teaching" mode, and the talk is about where the team will end up in this summer's draft.

Just as housekeeping: Players said there never has been talk of tanking games to improve the team's chance at gaining the No. 1 overall pick.

"I think if a guy brought that up in the room, 19 other guys would look at him like his head is on backwards," forward Ryan Craig said.

"It never enters the equation," Sullivan said. "We're all competitors. I know our objective each and every day is to improve this team and put it in the best position to win hockey games. When you take care of those things, good things happen to the organization."

The Thrashers are a good example. Atlanta is on a 6-2-0 streak. It lost to the Red Wings 6-2 on Friday at home.

Tampa Bay, on a 4-8-4 streak, has lost five straight at home, including Thursday's 5-2 decision to the Capitals after entering the third period tied 2-2 and Tuesday's 4-3 shootout loss to the Maple Leafs after leading 3-0 in the second.

"The main thing for us the last couple of games is we've been beating ourselves," Malone said. "If the other team makes a great tic-tac-toe play, you tip your hat to them, but you have to make sure that team is playing their A game and you don't lose games by choices and decisions with the puck.

"All of us lately have made some play that resulted in a goal against, and we have to make sure we're all accountable for being smarter with the puck and not giving teams those opportunities."

Especially in a (relatively) big game.

In a battle to avoid the Southeast Division basement, the Tampa Bay Lightning takes on the Atlanta Thrashers 03/20/09 [Last modified: Saturday, March 21, 2009 6:25am]
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