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TORONTO (Reuters) - The Toronto Maple Leafs surrendered a season-high eight goals in an 8-2 rout at the hands of the Dallas Stars in their final game before the NHL's Christmas break on Tuesday.
James Neal scored his first career hat-trick for the Stars, who have now won three of their last four games and are threatening to climb out of the Pacific division cellar.
"It's a special date coming home to play the Toronto Maple Leafs, it's a dream come true," said Neal, who grew up in Toronto supporting the Maple Leafs. "We came out hard but obviously they were a little tired with their game last night and the travel.
"But tonight was something special, it's something I'll never forget."
Playing their third game in four days, the Leafs had little left in their tanks as Dallas jumped out to a 3-0 lead on goals from Neal, Steve Ott and Fabian Brunnstrom before Toronto had registered their first shot on goal.
Brad Richards completed the first period rout with a power play goal to give Dallas a 4-0 advantage by the break.
The Stars continued their assault in the second, Krystopfer Barch slamming home a loose puck from a goalmouth scramble before Mike Ribeiro and Neal scored 80 seconds apart to chase Toronto netminder Vesa Toskala from the game.
Jason Blake spoiled Marty Turco's shutout bid late in the second and Mikhail Grabovski struck midway through the third before Neal completed his hat-trick with a rocket from the left face-off circle.
"They traveled late last night and we wanted to jump on them early and get a lead and we were able to do that," Dallas coach Dave Tippett told reporters.
"It's pretty hard to come back when you're a tired team.
"I thought we did a pretty good job on not letting our foot off the gas."
While it was a bitterly disappointing result for the young Leafs (14-14-6), who had five wins in their previous six games, coach Ron Wilson refused to let the defeat detract from what he viewed a successful start to the rebuilding process.
"We're at .500 right now and at the beginning of the year there wasn't a person who thought we would be there," he said.
"The tank was completely empty, we were on fumes.
"You have your ups and downs with a young team like this and for me there have been more ups and downs."
Editing by Greg Stutchbury