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Fourth line sees improvement, but Jets fail to prevent sweep from Golden Knights

WINNIPEG – For Rick Bowness, it was not so much a warning as it was a simple ask for more.

And if his direct words just so happen to put a few people on edge and possibly bring out the best in them, that would be an obvious bonus.

When the head coach of the Winnipeg Jets was asked about the insertion of Kevin Stenlund into the lineup for Tuesday’s showdown with the Vegas Golden Knights, he didn’t hold back his displeasure.

“I’m not happy with that fourth line at all, last game they had two goals against and they’re not generating anything,” Bowness said after the morning skate. “We’re going to give it a different look.”

So when the Jets made a waiver claim for forward Karson Kuhlman from the Seattle Kraken less than two hours later, it didn’t exactly come as a surprise.

Kuhlman, 27, is known as a high-character guy (a former captain with the University of Minnesota-Duluth Bulldogs) who plays with energy and is a right-handed shooter who can play either centre or wing and is responsible defensively.

No matter when Kuhlman makes his Jets’ debut (he’s scheduled to arrive in Winnipeg late on Wednesday), you can be sure that his addition to the roster is sure to raise the urgency level for those in competition for ice time throughout the bottom six.

Sam Gagner was one of the guys who was able to come up with an important contribution, redirecting home a point shot to tie the game late in the second period, snapping an 18-game drought in the process.

Gagner has gone through a myriad of emotions this season, getting off to a strong start and earning a promotion from the fourth line up to the first, only to tumble back down the depth chart to the point where he was a healthy scratch for several games.

When his tip-in found the back of the net, Gagner erupted with the joy of someone scoring his first NHL goal.

He knows his spot in the everyday lineup is on the line and he wants to keep it.

But that’s a lesson he’s learned time and time again on this journey toward 1,000 NHL games.

“We want to contribute, we want to help this team win games. I thought we played a strong game. I think for the most part we were in the other team’s end, created some chances, and that has to be the recipe for us. Hopefully we can build on it,” said Gagner, who suited up in No. 992 on Tuesday.

“You just go play and help the team win. Anytime you get in the line-up, that’s your mindset and when you’re not, you’re looking to add to the group any way you can. So that’s what we’re worried about.”

Stenlund, making his Jets’ debut, also chipped in an assist as he centred the fourth line, which moved David Gustafsson over to the wing.

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Stenlund took 16 shifts for just over 11 minutes of ice time, finishing with one shot on goal, three shot attempts and a blocked shot, while winning 57% of his draws.

“Much better,” said Bowness, responding to a question about the fourth line. “I thought Kevin (Stenlund) had a very strong game. (Gagner) was around the net. (Gustafsson) was fine on left wing.

“But I thought Kevin gave us what we needed him to do. He won some faceoffs. He’s a big, strong guy and hung onto the puck. I really liked his game and that helped that line create some offence.”

Gustafsson, who has no goals and three helpers in 27 games this season while contributing to the penalty kill, did a good job of getting to the net and drawing a slashing penalty on Golden Knights blue-liner Alec Martinez late in the second period.

That power play conversion put the Jets up 41 seconds into the third period, but they were unable to hold the lead.

The Jets fourth line remains a work in progress and part of the reason for that is that several players who could end up with that responsibility are currently playing higher in the lineup, with Jansen Harkins on the third line and Michael Eyssimont up in the top six, thanks to injuries to Nikolaj Ehlers, Mason Appleton and Saku Maenalanen.

That Jets’ third line also made a valuable contribution to the complementary scoring, with Morgan Barron showing some persistence, burying his own rebound after a point shot from Dylan Samberg.

Although the Golden Knights were without three of their top-six scorers (Jack Eichel, Alex Pietrangelo and Shea Theodore), along with Zach Whitecloud and Brett Howden, Bowness said it wasn’t too early to get excited about a matchup between two teams battling for top spot in the Western Conference.

After the Golden Knights won the first two meetings in Las Vegas, the Jets were determined not to get swept in the season series.

But the Golden Knights were able to overcome 1-0 and 4-3 deficits to improve to 21-9-1 on the season, taking a four-point lead over the Jets, who hold three games in hand but trail to Vegas in points percentage (.694 to .661).

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Some eyebrows were raised when Jets centre Pierre-Luc Dubois was skipped for a few rotations in the third period but Bowness made it clear in his post-game address that this was not a benching.

“He’s really sick. He’s under the weather, big time,” said Bowness. “And there’s a few other guys, a couple guys on IVs in there right now.”

The Jets close out a three-game homestand on Thursday against the Nashville Predators and they’ll be looking to avoid their first three-game losing skid of the season.

They’ve dropped consecutive games just one other time this season, back on Oct. 20 and 22 with defeats to the Golden Knights and Toronto Maple Leafs.

What’s been the recipe for avoiding those losses from spiralling into a streak to date?

“We’re just a good team. We don’t want to lose games and we want to rebound,” said Scheifele, who completed his sixth career hat trick with 1.7 seconds to go in regulation and is up to a team-leading 18 goals this season.

“We come in the next night and battle hard and give it our all and that’s all we can do here – get some rest and be ready for Nashville.”

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