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'Shaq' Hyman takes aim at milestone moment in homecoming game


The Maple Leafs host the Oilers on Saturday night. 

Former Leaf Zach Hyman arrives in Toronto on the doorstep of a milestone moment. 

"I don't think many people thought I'd have the opportunity to do it here," the Oilers winger said. "It'd be pretty special."

Hyman scored twice in Thursday's win over the Buffalo Sabres to raise his total to 48 goals through 66 games. 

How many friends and family will be in the building on Saturday? 

"I don't know the number, but it's lots," the Toronto native said with a grin. 

Hyman is on the cusp of becoming just the seventh player in Oilers history to score 50 goals in a single season. The exclusive club features Wayne Gretzky (eight times), Jari Kurri (four times), Leon Draisaitl (three times), Glenn Anderson (twice), Mark Messier and Connor McDavid, who did it last year. 

The chance to make history at home is a tantalizing proposition for Hyman and his teammates.  

"To see him achieve that accomplishment at any point would be great, but obviously this building means a lot to him," said McDavid, who is Hyman's centre. "Him playing here, being from here, lots of family here, that'd be great."

And it certainly feels doable considering how things are going. Hyman already has 10 multi-goal performances this season, including four hat tricks.  

"I was four goals away going into Buffalo, so probably not realistic," he said. "Scored two against Buffalo so then it was, OK, I've scored two before. But everyone's making a big deal out of it. I said it before, I don't think I've won here before so that's the focus."

Edmonton has been outscored 11-6 in their last two games in Toronto. Hyman didn't hit the scoresheet in the pair of losses. 

Oilers coach Kris Knoblauch acknowledges there's "absolutely" extra juice to this game, because of Hyman's chase for 50 goals. 

"Going into a game and saying a guy's going to score two goals, it's difficult, but the pace he's been scoring lately it is obviously achievable," Knoblauch said. "It would be pretty neat for him to do that here."

Knoblauch is doing his part to put the 31-year-old in position for a big night. Draisaitl moved up to the top line at the Oilers skate.

"You can never really choose when you score," Hyman stressed. "You go to the areas and you make plays and just try to do your part."

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Hyman's previous career high is 36 goals set last season. His highest total during six seasons in Toronto was 21. 

"It's been incredible," said Leafs winger William Nylander, who broke into the NHL at the same time as Hyman during the 2015-16 season. "It's been lots of fun seeing him have great success in Edmonton as a friend. It will be fun to play against him tonight too." 

Nylander smiled.

"He's two from 50," he said. "Not tonight."

The goal-scoring potential was obvious to Sheldon Keefe when he first coached Hyman with the Toronto Marlies in the American Hockey League. 

"We called him 'Shaq' Hyman for a reason," the Leafs coach recalled with a smile. "He got to the paint more and better than anybody. Now he is playing with a guy who gets the puck to the paint and tilts the ice more than anybody in the history of the game. It is a good fit, and he works to get to the right places. He is getting rewarded for it."

And McDavid is getting rewarded as well. He leads the NHL with 86 assists. 

"He's a great goal scorer," the Oilers captain said of Hyman. "He goes about it differently than Auston Matthews or something like that, but he's a great goal scorer in his own right and it's been fun to watch."

"He's one of the hardest-working guys I've ever met," said Nylander. "It's just an example of hard work paying off. You saw he had potential and now it's nice to see it's happening for him."

Hyman, a fifth round pick in the 2010 draft, got reflective when asked about his path to this point.

"I haven't had the easiest journey in the sense that I was never the best player on my team and nobody thought I would continue to progress," he said. "So just continue to hit little milestones and continue to work really hard and just believe in yourself. That's the key. There's so much noise and as you get to higher levels there's more noise. There's always people that are questioning your abilities no matter what level you're at. You just have to have an inner drive and an inner belief and an inner work ethic that if you do things right every day, good things are going to happen. And even if they don't you can look at yourself and say, 'Hey, I tried my best.' That's the message that I've always given to myself. My parents told me that from a young age. 'Just go work hard and whatever happens happens,' and even now it's the same message."

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It could also be a milestone night for Matthews, who is three goals away from 60 goals. 

"It seems like he finds so many different ways to score," McDavid said. "He's so smart. I don't think he gets enough credit for just how smart he is. He's always in the right area. He's always putting himself in a spot to score. It's been really impressive to watch."

Matthews scored a career high 60 goals a couple seasons ago. 

"Everyone talks about how good of a shot he has and that's why he scores," said Hyman, "but from my memory, playing with him, he scored so many goals in front of the net and tipping pucks and just knowing where to be with regards to the puck bouncing off a goalie, coming down on the rebounds. Hockey-IQ wise, just understanding how to get a shot off and how to score, just probably the best in the world." 

Hyman's quest for 50 goals will likely need to go through Matthews, who often gets the toughest defensive matchups. 

"When I played with him, I don't think he got enough credit for his two-way game," said Hyman. "He's extremely strong in his D-zone and a lot of that has to do with positionally being in the right spot and has to do with hockey IQ." 

Matthews delivered a five-point performance on Wednesday in Washington where he matched Alex Ovechkin with two goals. 

"He plays his best when it matters most," said Leafs rookie winger Matthew Knies. "He's been a great leader so far for us and a great example. When games get hard, he steps up and changes the momentum." 

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Tyler Bertuzzi played through an illness on Wednesday before missing Friday's practice. The top-line winger briefly skated on Saturday morning and is considered a game-time decision. 

"It will be Bert's call," said Keefe. "If he is feeling he is good to go, he will be in. Right now, he is not loving how he is feeling. We will see how he is throughout the day and do what we can to get him up to speed, keeping in mind that we do play tomorrow as well."

In Bertuzzi's absence at practice, Knies moved up to the top line with Matthews and Max Domi

Domi produced a career high four assists against the Capitals. 

"He can find a pass in any scenario and any situation," said Knies. "He's a gritty player too. He's not afraid to play in the corners and play against their toughest and biggest guys."

Domi moved up to the top power-play unit at Friday's practice. 

"I don't think we've played with him this year so I think it will be a nice, different look for their team to try and figure out our situation," said Nylander, who moved down low in the zone to make room for Domi on the flank. "Obviously, a tremendous passer so it will be lots of fun."


The Leafs aren't planning any changes on defence, which means the Morgan Rielly and Jake McCabe pair will get a second game together. 

"We have been hesitant to put them together throughout the season just because there are a lot of similarities in their games," Keefe revealed. "Morgan is much more offensive and all of those sorts of things, but they both skate really well. Their skating and their feet take them to different spots on the ice that — in my mind — counter what each of them does, which is why I haven't seen them as candidates to be a really good pair."

The duo will need to be on high alert against the Oilers, who rank second in goals per game (3.8) since Knoblauch took over the bench on Nov. 12. 

"They have to be really smart in how they play," said Keefe. "Their feet take them to good offensive places, and there are good rewards that come with that, but when it goes bad, it can go really bad. They have to be really locked in on how they move and read off of one another. That is part of it."

Rielly leads the Leafs defence with 50 points while McCabe is second with 25. 

There are potential positives to the pairing, especially in the defensive zone.

"McCabe has done a really good job for us," said Keefe. "He is physical. He arrives at the puck in a bad mood and creates loose pucks. Morgan can come in, scoop those up, and get going. If it's our low forward who wins the battle and gets the breakout going, it can allow Morgan to get going the other way. One of the positives defensively: Because of how Jake closes fast and physically, it creates loose pucks that can get us on offence quickly, which can help Morgan in transition."

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Conor Timmins and Simon Benoit will remain together on the third pair. Wednesday's game was the first for Timmins since Jan. 24. 

"I felt pretty good," the 25-year-old said. "The adrenaline carries you that first game back. But, overall, it was a good game and the team played well so it was easy for me."

Timmins was sidelined by mononucleosis at the same time that fellow righty defenceman Timothy Liljegren missed time due to injury and Rielly was suspended. 

"That was definitely a tough one to go through, especially the timing of it with some opportunity on the back end," he said. "I mean, there's not much you can do. Life's going to throw some tough bounces at you and you just got to roll with them and keep working hard."


What's the biggest challenge presented by the Oilers? 

"The challenges are obvious," Keefe said. "Do you even need me to answer the question?"

Probably not. 

So, then the question becomes, how do you stop Edmonton's high-octane attack? 

"Whoever controls the neutral zone will be the better team today," predicted Nylander. "I think that's where a lot of speed is going to be created."

And no one is faster than McDavid. 

The Leafs limited McDavid to one assist on Jan. 16, but still fell 4-2 in Edmonton in the last meeting between the teams. 

"You gotta be on top of him and stay in front of him in the neutral zone so he can't build up speed," said Leafs winger Bobby McMann. "You just try and get in his way."

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Ilya Samsonov is projected to get the start on Saturday. Joseph Woll will play on Sunday in Raleigh. Where do things stand in the race to be the Game 1 playoff starter?

"There is a long way to go here still," Keefe cautioned. "A lot of things can and likely will happen. That has been how it has been for us this season and even last season in that sense. We definitely have confidence in our guys."

Samsonov lost his last two starts, but is 13-4-1 with a .908 save percentage since being recalled from the American Hockey League in January. 

"Samsonov is playing his best hockey right now," said Keefe. "Woll is finding his way back, and we have great belief in him. He got some experience in the playoffs last year for us, too."

Woll picked up the win on Wednesday. He is 2-2-0 with an .876 save percentage since returning from a high ankle sprain on Feb. 29. 

The plan is for Samsonov and Woll to split the final 14 games. 

"It is probably going to equal out over the remaining games," said Keefe. "They will play about the same, whether it is alternating or two here and two there. As I have looked at it and tried to map it out, that is how I see it. I don't see it going any differently than that."


Lines at Oilers skate on Saturday: 

Draisaitl - McDavid - Hyman
Foegele - RNH - McLeo
Kane - Henrique - Perry
Janmark - Carrick - Brown

Ekholm - Bouchard
Nurse - Desharnais
Kulak - Ceci

Skinner starts 

Lines at Leafs practice on Friday: 

Knies - Matthews - Domi 
McMann - Tavares - Nylander 
Dewar - Kampf - Gregor
Robertson - Holmberg - Reaves 

Rielly - McCabe 
Edmundson - Liljegren 
Benoit - Timmins 

Samsonov starts