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Statement win shows how far playoff-bound Stars have come

After a challenging ride to get there, Dallas' attention turns to what it might be able to do in the postseason

by Mike Heika @MikeHeika / Senior Staff Writer

The Stars didn't just clear the last hurdle on the way to the playoffs, they bound over it.

Playing before a packed American Airlines Center with a raucous group salivating over the potential return to the postseason, the Stars took a 6-2 win that sort of mirrored the entire season.

It was tense, and scary, and exhilarating and passionate. In the end, it was a strong statement about what this team is, how far it has come, and what it might be able to do.

"It feels good," Stars coach Jim Montgomery said. "It was a little bit of an ugly game there in the second period. I like the way we came out and seized it."

This has been a challenging ride for the Stars.

From the early-season injuries to Stephen Johns, Marc Methot, Martin Hanzal and John Klingberg, to the mid-season call-ups that resulted in the team using 14 defensemen, to the doubt that boiled up in the organization for a couple of months there and threatened to tear at the identity of this team -- it has rarely been easy.

Video: Montgomery on Stars earning postseason berth with win

Even these past few weeks tested the players and coaches. They went 1-3-1 on a homestand that should have set their playoff dream in motion. But instead of crumbling, they have gone 4-0-1 since, including an impressive four-game road trip, and a win Tuesday that was downright declarative.

"I am very proud," said captain Jamie Benn. "You go through a lot throughout a season with this group of guys in here, and it's been a complete team effort from top to bottom. The coaches right down to the bottom. So, it's fun to come to the rink and battle with these guys and be able to compete and win.

"When you are getting results, it's a lot of fun."

The Stars got off to a 2-0 lead, watched the game get tied 2-2, and then still had the moxie to rally back and pull away. They saw the return of Mats Zuccarello. They saw another huge win from Anton Khudobin. They saw Alexander Radulov flex the scoring muscles that could really carry this team in the playoffs.

And they also saw goals from Jason Dickinson and Tyler Pitlick and Blake Comeau. They saw an outstanding performance from Esa Lindell. They saw a glow of potential that seems bright enough to light the whole city.

Ah, maybe that's too much. Maybe that's just the delirium of getting back to the dance. Maybe that's intoxicating whiff of playoffs past that floods the brain at times like this.

Video: Stars' quest for Stanley Cup begins now

But if you want to dream, now is the time to do it.

Zuccarello came back quicker than we thought and didn't end the game on the ice. He left for post-game X-rays that we all believe are no big deal. Montgomery said they don't involve the broken arm that kept Zuccarello out for 17 games after he was acquired in trade from the New York Rangers.

The hope is the slick forward will be fine, because what we have seen in his 30 minutes of ice time in Victory Green has been spectacular. He set up Esa Lindell for a shocking goal on the power play in the first period, and he then made tiny pass after tiny pass to keep other man advantages rolling. He was a magician in his ability to see the ice and find his teammates.

If he can stay healthy, he is a game-changer for the 29th-ranked offense in the league. If he can stay healthy, he gives the Stars an X-factor.

"He's the best passer on our team," Montgomery said. "He makes everybody around him better."

Mix in the return of Tyler Pitlick from a 30-game absence for a wrist tendon injury, and you increase the depth even more. Pitlick played 10:43 Tuesday and scored a goal. Playing with Jason Spezza and Mattias Janmark, Pitlick made the fourth line look dangerous. In the meantime, the third line of Radek Faksa between Comeau and Cogliano also looked dangerous.

Video: Radulov, Stars defeat Flyers to clinch playoff berth

It was a transformation of sorts.

"It's a long season and there's going to be ups and downs all the time," said Radulov who had two goals and two assists. "It was a tough season for us, we had some guys hurting and guys got called up and played well.

"If you look at the whole season, we grinded it out, we found a way, and I think we deserve to be in the playoffs."

A right they earned with a beautiful leap over the Philadelphia Flyers on Tuesday.

"It was important to end it with us doing it in front of our fans, and for us doing it on our own merit, not somebody losing a point to get in," Montgomery said of the fact the team didn't qualify Monday on an off-day.

"I thought that was really important, because when you get in the playoffs, you have to be able to end (a) series."

This story was not subject to the approval of the National Hockey League or Dallas Stars Hockey Club.

Mike Heika is a Senior Staff Writer for DallasStars.com and has covered the Stars since 1994. Follow him on Twitter @MikeHeika.

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