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Neal leads balanced attack with two goals as Stars thump Blue Jackets 7-3

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COLUMBUS, Ohio - James Neal scored two goals and Dallas rolled to an early 3-0 lead and never let up Saturday night in beating the Columbus Blue Jackets 7-3, the Stars' fourth victory in a row.

The game pitted two of the teams wrestling for playoff position in the Western Conference. The Stars pulled even with the Blue Jackets with 53 points.

Loui Eriksson added a goal and an assist, and Brian Sutherby, Steve Ott, Trevor Daley and Andrew Hutchinson also scored for the Stars, 25-4-4 overall against Columbus. Mike Modano added two assists, and Neal also had an assist. Marty Turco stopped 35 shots.

Kristian Huselius had a goal and an assist, and Fedor Tyutin and Jared Boll also scored for the Blue Jackets, who disappointed a near-capacity crowd with just their third loss in the last 13 home games.

Columbus goalie Steve Mason, leading the NHL in goals-against average (1.98) and shutouts (seven), started his 18th straight game for the Blue Jackets. He didn't last long, however.

The rookie was victimized for three goals in the opening 10:43 and was replaced by Wade Dubielewicz.

On their third shot, the Stars made it 1-0 on a rebound off Matt Niskanen's shot from the point. The puck hit Columbus defenceman Ole-Kristian Tollefsen's skate and bounced to Neal for his first of the night.

With Dallas on the power play, the Blue Jackets nearly scored on a rush but got caught with their defencemen pinched in. The Stars sped back down the ice with Eriksson carrying the puck on the right wing on a 2-on-1. As he attempted to pass to his left, Blue Jackets defenceman Marc Methot got his stick on the pass. Eriksson then swatted the puck into the net for his 24th just before Methot slid backward into the post, knocking it off its mooring.

Mason, who gave up the three goals on just eight shots, was then beaten when Eriksson's shot was wide off the back boards and Sutherby collected it and jammed it in for his fourth.

The Blue Jackets drew to 3-1 late in the period when Huselius raced into the Dallas zone to control a loose puck near the top of the right circle, skated in on Turco, faked the forehand and scored his 14th on the backhand.

Columbus narrowed the gap to a goal on Tyutin's power-play goal early in the second period - seconds after Dallas had survived a full minute of 5-on-3. But Neal netted his 15th of the year, pouncing on a rebound after Dubielewicz had stopped Modano's wicked shot from the high slot.

Ott pushed the lead to 5-2 late in the second period, speeding down the ice late in the play to beat a defenceman to the puck after Dubielewicz had blocked a shot by Jere Lehtinen.

In the third period, Boll drew Columbus within two goals, but Daley came right back with his sixth on a hard shot from the right dot that hit a skate and went high into the back of the net. Hutchinson closed the scoring with just under two minutes left.

Notes: Columbus coach Ken Hitchcock, who guided Dallas to a Stanley Cup in 1999, coached in his 951st game. ... A full 2 1/2 hours before game time, 200 or so fans were lined up outside the arena to buy available tickets. ... Scouts from Atlanta, Montreal, Colorado, Anaheim, Florida, the New York Islanders, Pittsburgh and Minnesota were at the game. ... Dallas D Darryl Sydor, a former Blue Jacket, was hit on the ankle by a shot midway through the third period and limped to the dressing room. He did not return.

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