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Determination is a determining factor

Vinny Prospal considered the way the Lightning has played since returning from the Olympic break and hoped he and his teammates remember the feeling.

"We're playing at a level where we can beat anybody," the Tampa Bay forward said. "This is how we have to play next year from the start."

Prospal wasn't talking about systems, X's or even O's. He was talking about attitude, emotion, desperation.

More than the improvements in the neutral zone. More than the stabilized penalty kill. Even more, in some ways, than the brilliant goaltending from Nikolai Khabibulin, the Lightning, 5-2-4-2 since Feb. 26 and with points in a team-record eight consecutive games, has benefited from a noticeable change in determination.

Put simply, the Lightning has stepped up in areas that, when attended to properly, allow any team to push the league's elite.

There still are going to be frustrating mistakes like the one that led to Sunday's 4-3 overtime loss to the Bruins, or the one that allowed the Canadiens to tie Friday's game at 3 with 6.2 seconds left in the third period.

But if the commitment to grinding along the boards continues; if the willingness to take the body and the front of the net grows; if the effort to forecheck, backcheck and disrupt becomes a mindset, those are big battles won.

"The team simply competes harder," coach John Tortorella said. "This is the way the good teams, that win 35 to 40 games play. Yes, those teams are more talented, but they play hard."

"It comes down to 100-percent attitude," defenseman Jassen Cullimore said. "The guys in this room are doing all they can to win games. It doesn't matter if it's the seventh game of the Stanley Cup or a game that doesn't mean anything. The guys in this room are going to show up and play."

The Lightning showed up last March, winning six of seven games during the team's first eight-win month. That did not stop a disastrous finish in which the team lost eight of nine.

The feeling is that such a collapse, even if Tampa Bay, on the outer edge of the playoff race, falls hopelessly out of touch, will not happen again.

"With the coaching staff we have and the leadership we have, I don't think they will allow us to fall off," center Brad Richards said. "I'm not saying we're going to win every game, but we're going to battle."

"Plain and simple, this is a different team and a different year," Cullimore said. "The attitude and confidence we have in here has changed. The past doesn't count right now. We're looking to the future."

Looking ahead for some Lightning players means impressing the coaching staff, which will have decisions to make if Martin St. Louis and Fredrik Modin heal up and get back to the lineup.

Those decisions could be more difficult during the summer if general manager Jay Feaster adds some still badly needed pieces at forward and defense.

Then there is a three-game trip through Canada that begins tonight against the Maple Leafs at the Air Canada Centre; the first time Tampa Bay has played consecutive games on the road since the last week of January.

Reason enough for the players to keep focused and set even more of a foundation for next season.

"This is a huge trip and a very difficult trip," said Tortorella of the six-day trip that also hits Montreal and Ottawa. "I'm looking forward to seeing how we react. It could answer questions about where we're headed."

And how fast it can get there.

"The team has found that there is another gear to play good to win and get points," the coach said. "I believe there will have to be another gear to do that consistently."