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AN INDIVIDUAL JOB

Loss is a hard lesson each player has to prep himself to play.

Put quite simply, it was "inexcusable" for Lightning players to be as mentally unprepared as they were for the start of Thursday's game with the Flames, Tampa Bay assistant coach Steve Thomas said.

Yes, Tampa Bay has clinched a playoff spot. But it is fighting for home-ice advantage in the first round. Even more important, Thomas said, it wants to be "hitting on all cylinders" when the playoffs begin April 16.

"You don't want to be trying to find your game in Game 1," Thomas said Friday at the Ice Sports Forum.

"Ultimately it comes down to each individual coming to play right from the drop of the puck, and that is about your professionalism and knowing what you're there for."

In that sense, the 4-1 loss to Calgary, in which the Lightning played as if in a fog in the first period and fell behind 2-0, might be a good lesson.

"It was a small microcosm of what can go on in the playoffs," Thomas said. "You can go down in Game 1 in your building, and you don't want to do that."

"It's a mental thing," wing Alex Killorn said. "You have to know coming into it that it's going to be a battle."

Getting there is an interesting process because it is so individual to each player.

Coaches can prepare a team with systems and scouting. They can talk until they are blue in the face about what is at stake. But unless players flip that switch, it can fall on deaf ears.

For the Lightning, selective hearing occurs against teams out of the playoff hunt. In its past four games against such teams - the Senators, Islanders, Sabres and Stars - it is 2-1-1 and was behind in both wins.

Even Killorn, when talking about the Flames game, said, "We just took things for granted a little bit coming into that game. We're professionals. We have to be better prepared than that."

It should help that Tampa Bay's last six regular-season games, starting tonight against the Stars at the Tampa Bay Times Forum, are with teams in the playoff chase.

"I think it will," coach Jon Cooper said. "We've got to come out from the drop of the puck and be sharp ... playing with determination and passion for the full 60 (minutes). That's what needs to be done."

It won't be done unless the players are proactive.

"It's individual and collective," right wing Ryan Callahan said. "You have to approach the game in whatever way you have to to make sure as soon as the puck drops you're ready to go."

Perhaps a player stands in the locker room before the game and delivers a pointed message. Perhaps players focus quietly.

"It's a mind-set in the room," Killorn said. "It starts in the pregame skate. It's an attitude. You have to want to win."

"The thing I like about our guys is they understand they could have come out a little bit mentally sharper (against the Flames)," Cooper said. "'Okay, this is why it happened. Let's not let it happen again.'"

No excuses.

MINOR MOVE: With defenseman Mike Kostka (concussion) out indefinitely, Andrej Sustr was recalled from AHL Syracuse. Sustr, 23, had seven assists and was plus-4 in 38 games for Tampa Bay before he was sent to the Crunch in January. In 12 games with Syracuse - he missed six weeks with a shoulder/collarbone injury - Sustr had a goal and four points, and was minus-3.

Damian Cristodero can be reached at cristodero@tampabay.com.

* * *

TONIGHT

Lightning vs. Stars

When/where: 7; Tampa Bay Times Forum

TV/radio: Ch. 44; 970-AM

Key stats: The Lightning has beaten the Stars three straight and has not lost to Dallas in regulation since Dec. 20, 2003 (5-0-2). ... Tampa Bay's power play is 13-for-52 (25 percent) in its past 12 games. ... C Steven Stamkos has zero points in his past three games. ... Stars C Tyler Seguin has nine goals, 20 points in his past 14 games.

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