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James Neal scores three goals, Dallas hammers the Maple Leafs 8-2

The Canadian Press
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Toronto Maple Leafs Vesa Toskala watches the puck go past him as Dallas Stars Fabian Brunnstrom scores the third goal during first period NHL hockey action in Toronto on Tuesday, December 23, 2008. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jim Ross Author: The Hockey News

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James Neal scores three goals, Dallas hammers the Maple Leafs 8-2

The Canadian Press
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TORONTO - It looks like the Toronto Maple Leafs decided to start their Christmas break one day early.

Dallas Stars rookie James Neal scored his first career hat trick on Tuesday as his team hammered the sluggish Maple Leafs 8-2. Thirteen different Dallas players registered a point during the game. Steve Ott, Fabian Brunnstrom, Brad Richards, Krystofer Barch and Mike Ribeiro also scored for the Stars (14-14-5). Jere Lehtinen, Landon Wilson, Trevor Daley and Stephane Robidas added two assists each.

Jason Blake and Mikhail Grabovski replied for Toronto (14-14-6).

It didn't take long for this one to turn ugly - the Maple Leafs were down 3-0 before they'd even registered a shot on goal. Neal, Ott and Brunnstrom scored on Vesa Toskala in the first 10:45 of the game and it was fairly evident by then that it would be a long night for the home team.

Playing for the fourth time in six nights, the Leafs didn't look like they had much interest in defensive zone coverage at all. Dallas was totally having its way, showing as much speed as any visiting team has all season at Air Canada Centre and moving the puck with authority.

The sellout crowd of 19,269 started getting on Toskala after he allowed a power-play goal to Richards at 14:12 of the first period. Toronto's starting goalie missed Monday's win in Atlanta while receiving treatment for a groin injury and didn't deserve the mix of boos and sarcastic cheers he got upon his return to the crease.

After all, it isn't his job to cover opposing forwards in front of the goal. Clearly, no one else in blue and white wanted to do it for him:

-Barch was left unchecked during a prolonged goal-mouth scramble before eventually scoring from his knees to make it 5-0 at 3:45 of the second period.

-Ribeiro was barely touched at the edge of the crease as he calmly shovelled the puck into an open net at 10:15.

-And Neal's second of the night came after another scramble at 11:35.

It was 7-0 by the time coach Ron Wilson gave Toskala a break and sent Curtis Joseph in to replace him.

There was a sense of shock in the building by that point. The Maple Leafs had won five of six games coming in and hadn't shown a propensity for embarrassing defeats like the team of year ago, when Toronto lost five games on home ice by five or more goals.

The only remaining question at that point was whether Marty Turco could polish off his first shutout of the season. Blake made sure that didn't happen, taking a nice pass from behind the net and beating Turco at 15:33 of the second period.

Grabovski added a goal at 9:20 before Neal polished off a hat trick at 18:34.

The building was nearly empty by the time that happened. Those that stayed around booed the home team as the seconds ticked away.

The NHL now breaks for two days over Christmas and the Maple Leafs will return to action on Boxing Day with a visit to Long Island.

Notes: Dallas played at Toronto for the first time since Dec. 10, 2005 ... Turco has a record of 48-13-4 against Canadian teams since 2002-03 ... The Stars and Leafs are both looking for their first short-handed goal this season ... Andre Deveaux earned his first NHL point with an assist on Toronto's second goal.

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James Neal scores three goals, Dallas hammers the Maple Leafs 8-2