SAN JOSE – William Eklund took control of the puck inside the Sharks’ blue line and immediately started up the ice. Vegas Golden Knights defensemen Nicolas Hague and Zach Whitecloud collided as they started to backcheck in the neutral zone, setting up a two-on-none for Eklund and Rudolfs Balcers.
Eklund passed to Balcers, who passed it back to Eklund for a tap-in goal past Knights goalie Robin Lehner.
If there was any doubt as to whether Eklund will be right back inside SAP Center on Oct. 16, wearing a Sharks uniform, it was erased Saturday.
Eklund was everywhere, making little plays away in the offensive and defensive zones, highlighted by his give-and-go with Balcers to help the Sharks earn a 4-0 win over Vegas in the preseason finale for both teams.
“I thought he was great again,” Sharks coach Bob Boughner said. “Not just the goal, but I thought he did a lot of great things. He looks good out there. He’s adjusting every day.”
Jonathan Dahlen, Kevin Labanc, and Brent Burns also scored and goalie Adin Hill finished with 25 saves as the Sharks closed the preseason with a 3-2-1 record.
Now the Sharks turn their attention to their regular-season opener next Saturday at home against the Winnipeg Jets. San Jose, which had 29 players in camp as of Saturday morning, has to get its roster down to 23 players by Monday at 2 p.m. (PT).
Here are the takeaways from Saturday night.
CLOSING ARGUMENT: There’s not much more Eklund, who will turn 19 on Tuesday, could have done to prove that he belongs with the Sharks to start the season.
He finished the exhibition season with a team-high six points, including five assists. Just as important has been his work on every shift and away from the puck.
On one instance Saturday, he quietly helped set a pick to free up linemate Tomas Hertl for a shot on goal. On another, he created some space for himself in the defensive zone and got the puck to defenseman Mario Ferraro to help start a breakout.
“It’s going to get to another level here, especially with the intensity of opening night. We’re playing a really good hockey team in Winnipeg,” Boughner said. “But great players figure that out, and I think he’s going to be a great player in this league.
“He’s smart enough to know when to take the hit and when not to, and he’s a heads-up guy. Very rarely do you ever see him looking down.”
Eklund, who also drew two penalties, figures to be one of five or perhaps six rookies to start the season with the Sharks. At the very least, he’ll get that nine-game audition that’s afforded players on entry-level contracts.
Before Eklund’s 10th game, the Sharks will have to decide whether to send him back to Sweden, assign him to the AHL or keep him on the roster and burn the first year of his entry-level.
If they’re serious about wanting to be a playoff team, the Sharks have to give Eklund a look in preseason games. Then they can go ahead and figure out what’s best for his long-term future.
“I don’t know if I’ve surprised myself. I had high hopes going in here,” Eklund said. “Obviously, I was trying to make the team.”
Looks like he’s done enough.
FINAL TUNEUP: The Sharks probably have some more confidence in their goaltending now than they did prior to the start of the last two seasons.
Hill had to make a few high danger stops Saturday, but otherwise he just simply made the saves he was expected to make. He had 15 saves in the first two periods, with only one coming on the power play.
Because of a wrist injury he suffered in practice last Sunday, he was only able to play in one other preseason game, on Sept. 26 when he stopped 21 of 23 shots in the Sharks’ 4-2 win over Vegas at T-Mobile Arena.
“I was concerned for maybe 15 minutes and then kind of set aside,” Hill said. “I just got shot in a weird spot on the wrist, and it didn’t actually hit any bones directly. Luckily it just kind of hit kind of all the tendons.”
With Hill’s performance so far, combined with James Reimer’s track record and .915 save percentage in three preseason games, the Sharks are optimistic that their goaltending can better than it was the last two seasons.
In the preseason two years ago, Martin Jones and Aaron Dell had a combined save percentage of .903.
“It’s been a bright spot for the last few preseason games,” Boughner said. “We said it early in camp that it was going to be a good competition for both those guys and they seemed to push each other and come up with saves at the right time. It sort of gives the rest of the team juice.”
FITTING IN: Saturday’s game wasn’t about deciding the winners of the final few roster spots that were available at the start of camp. It was more about getting a last look at which lines and defense pairs could establish some chemistry in the final dress rehearsal of the exhibition season.
From all indications, the Sharks will have rookie forwards Jasper Weatherby, Dahlen, Eklund, Lane Pederson, Jonah Gadjovich, and defenseman Santeri Hatakka next week.
Saturday, Dahlen started the game with Logan Couture and Timo Meier, and Eklund was with Hertl and Balcers. Weatherby and Pederson formed the fourth line with Andrew Cogliano.
“I think this was my most comfortable game out there,” Dahlen said. “I think I played pretty well in other games, but I added some offense today, got some good passes, and was more involved.”
The Couture line was easily the Sharks’ best Saturday, generating nine scoring chances and allowing just two, according to Natural Stat Trick.
There was some question about how Dahlen would adjust to playing in the NHL after he dominated the Allsvenskan, Sweden’s second-best hockey league, the last two years. Right now, Dahlen doesn’t look out of place. But more will be known about him when the physicality ramps up next week.
“His game for me is more suited towards the North American style,” Boughner said of Dahlen. “I think he’s better in tight areas and I think that’s a big part of his game. (Couture) makes people around him better, too. He’s an easy guy to play with and he’s always in the right spot.
“I thought (Meier) had a good camp as well. He’s worked hard, he’s been physical. I thought he’s given us energy every night. I liked that line.”
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Author: Curtis Pashelka