Neal backs Auld as Stars' win extends Blue Jackets' freefall

DALLAS -- When James Neal faced the Columbus Blue Jackets on Nov. 19, the Dallas Stars left wing found himself at the center of a controversy.

This time, Neal stuck to hockey.

Neal scored twice, Alex Auld made 33 saves, and the Stars beat the stumbling Blue Jackets 3-1 on Wednesday night.

In the previous meeting in Dallas, Columbus winger Derek Dorsett sustained a head injury on a hit from behind by Neal, who insisted he meant no harm to Dorsett but was slapped with a two-game NHL suspension.

Dorsett, who later accused Neal of reckless play, sat out nine games with a concussion, then returned for three games before breaking his hand. Dorsett missed his sixth straight game with the latter injury.

"It was a tough situation there," Neal said. "You never want that to happen. But you don't think about it. You just go out and play and that's what I did tonight."

With the score even at 1, Neal set up in front of the net and fired a rebound past Blue Jackets goaltender Steve Mason at 6:18 of the second period. Neal pounced on another rebound at 10:28 of the third period to make it 3-1 and give him a team-high 18 goals.

"He's got real good hands and he gets to pucks around the net," Stars coach Marc Crawford said. "He showed his physical nature. That's his game."

The Blue Jackets never got physical with Neal, who stayed out of the penalty box.

"If it happens, it happens, but I wasn't looking for it or anything like that," Neal said.

Neal nearly scored his third goal of the night into an open net in the final minute, but his shot was blocked by the Columbus defense.

Rookie Jamie Benn had a first-period goal, and Brad Richards and Loui Eriksson had two assists each for the Stars, 6-1-2 in their last nine at home.

Auld was subbing for regular starter Marty Turco, and turned in an outstanding effort, stopping all 11 shots he faced in the third period when the Blue Jackets pressed the attack.

Auld praised his defense for keeping the Blue Jackets on the perimeter for most of the night.

"Even though they had a few more shots than we did, I thought the guys limited their chances," Auld said. "We did a good job keeping the shots on the outside and letting me see the puck."

Columbus' Rick Nash scored his 19th career goal against the Stars, and Mason made 25 saves.

On Tuesday, Columbus general manager Scott Howson, coach Ken Hitchcock and his staff and 10 veteran players gathered to discuss the state of the team and its lengthy slump. The meeting didn't produce the desired result as Columbus fell to 0-6-2 in its last eight and 1-8-3 in December.

"I just think we didn't play well," Hitchcock said. "If we're going to score more we've got to go to the net more. We need everybody maxing out for us to win, and that's what we're going to have to get."

The Blue Jackets entered the game with the league's No. 1 power play, converting 23.2 percent of their chances, but Columbus went 0-for-4 with the man advantage against Dallas.

Nash beat Auld with a quick shot from the left circle at 11:16 of the opening period for his team-high 19th goal of the season. Columbus had been outscored in the first period 13-1 in its previous seven games.

Benn tied it at 1 at 17:23 of the first period on a wrister from the high slot, Benn's eight goal of the season.

Game notes
Columbus had been 5-1-1 in its previous seven trips to Dallas over the last three seasons. ... Since a 4-1 win over Dallas in November, Columbus is 2-11-5. ... The Blue Jackets are winless (0-7-3) in their last 10 on the road. ... Dallas RW Jere Lehtinen (groin) missed his second straight game. ... Stars D Trevor Daley (shoulder) and Mark Fistric (concussion) are out. ... D Anton Stralman (flu) and Rostislav Klesla (groin) missed the game for the Blue Jackets. ... Columbus D Mike Commodore sustained a facial cut early in the third period. He went to the locker room for stitches and returned.