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Slow-starting Stars return from break with eye on playoffs

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FRISCO, Texas (AP) Jason Spezza won't deny that his arrival in Dallas helped create expectations that the Stars struggled to meet early in the season.

He's just glad the weight wasn't enough to ruin the season before the Stars reached the All-Star break.

''When you're a team that makes the playoffs and then you add a couple of pieces, the expectations take another step,'' said Spezza, who came in along with Ales Hemsky on the first day of free agency last summer, giving Dallas more firepower to go with Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn.

''Sometimes it doesn't work like that right off the hop,'' he said. ''And we've kind of had a wishy-washy first half, but fortunately find ourselves not too far on the outside with a chance here to make some ground in the second half.''

Seguin is tied for the NHL lead in goals with 28, and the Stars are fourth in scoring. But Dallas had the worst defense in the league before improvement at the blue line in recent weeks.

The net result: The Stars return from the break with a visit to Montreal on Tuesday night, four points out of the final playoff spot in the Western Conference after ending a five-year playoff drought last season. They believe 11 wins in the past 18 games are a better indicator of their worth than just 10 victories in the first 28.

''We lost a few games and maybe that's part of the reason we couldn't get our traction back there for a little while,'' said Alex Goligoski, a veteran of several offseasons without any expectations in Dallas. ''That's all history. I think we've settled in pretty nice now and it's a 36-game season.''

Dallas had a seven-game losing skid to finish the first month, and allowed five goals each time during another four-game skid.

Even when the Stars surged before the break, coach Lindy Ruff left the impression that Kari Lehtonen wasn't a lock as his top goalie. Lehtonen's save percentage is the highest since his first full season nine years ago, and his goals-against average is his worst in six seasons in Dallas.

While Lehtonen has shown improvement despite getting pulled from a game against Ottawa that Dallas won two weeks ago, what's saving him the most is that backup Anders Lindback hasn't been much better.

''Kari is still my guy,'' Ruff said. ''It's a tough place to be because he's the reason a lot of times when we're winning games and there's been some nights he's had some tough ones go in and it's probably the reason we've lost.''

Spezza's scoring pace is off significantly, and Hemsky didn't get his first goal until the 22nd game after the pair averaged about a point per game in a brief stint together in Ottawa last season.

While Seguin is second in the NHL with 52 points, Benn's scoring is down and Ruff has tinkered at times with his top lines trying to find the right mix.

But the Stars are coming out of the break feeling much better than they did in early December.

''I think we found our identity more,'' Spezza said. ''We spent less time talking about how we need to play and more time just going over mistakes we made within our structure. And that's a sign usually that everybody knows what we're doing.''

And perhaps finally adjusting to higher expectations for a franchise that hasn't known that feeling for a while.