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Questioning the Flyers – Postseason Edition

Philadelphia Flyers

The Philadelphia Flyers begin their 2014 Stanley Cup Playoff run this Thursday in Game 1 hosted by the New York Rangers. There has been quite a bit of news the past few days regarding the Flyers, so let’s get to it:

  • Did the Flyers overpay to keep defenseman Andrew MacDonald? He was signed Tuesday to a six-year $30-million contract. MacDonald has been lauded by some to be a stabilizing force on the Flyers’ back end while decried by others as soft and a mere turnstile for opponents who gain the offensive zone and set up shop. It is my opinion that he is overpaid, as most defensemen are and he may have been signed too early by the Flyers before giving him a better look. The Flyers lost cap space to sign defenseman Matt Carle two summers ago when they signed Nicklas Grossmann to a new deal.  The remaining cap space could not fit Carle’s asking price within it, so Carle left for Tampa Bay. As one looks around the league and sees better defensemen at similar or even lower salaries, it becomes an easily second-guessed move, especially if it means Kimmo Timonen, the Flyers’ second-best defenseman behind Braydon Coburn this year, is forced to retire to Finland or play somewhere else in the NHL.
  • Could the hype surrounding Shayne Gostisbehere have been any sillier on Monday? All it takes in the Delaware Valley is for one person to read too much into a quote or situation — whether intentionally or not — for a fervor to break out. Gostisbehere signed his Entry Level Contract (ELC) on Tuesday, thankfully putting silly rumors that he would not sign (so as to become a free agent instead) to rest.

And now for the questions that actually pertain to the playoffs:

  • Is Steve Mason 100% healthy? The starting goaltender took a high hit from Pittsburgh Penguin Jayson Megna this past Saturday and stayed out of the Flyers lineup on Sunday in their season finale against the Carolina Hurricanes. The Flyers hope he is fine to start the playoffs because he has been good enough to win games most nights and has robbed opponents on a number of occasions. He did practice today but his day-to-day status with an upper body injury has not been lifted as of this writing. Flyers fans are all-too-familiar with injured Flyers players going into the playoffs: Tim Kerr, Eric Lindros, Eric Desjardins, and Mark Howe to name a few. Mason’s health is vital to the Flyers making it past the Rangers.
  • Can the Flyers render the Rangers ineffective through the neutral zone? The Rangers come at their opponents with speed. The Flyers cannot give them too much room in the neutral zone or allow easy entries. They will need to force offsides and dump-ins to their advantage. Any sort of turnstile play from the D (allowing a carry-in to the defensive zone) and the Rangers are going to get more chances. More chances, more shots. More shots, more goals. I have long been a proponent of cutting down the things that funnel down to become goals. To summarize, to limit goals, a team needs to limit shots. To limit shots, a team needs to limit chances. To limit chances, a team needs to prevent its opponent from gaining control of the puck in their zone in the first place. To prevent that, a team needs to better read transitions, get pucks deep when they are looking to change lines themselves, make sure their defensive clears actually clear the defensive zone, mitigate their turnovers in all zones (in order of most to least egregious, defensive zone, then neutral zone, then offensive zone), and refrain from taking a lot of penalties.
  • Can the Flyers use their size to their advantage and physically wear the Rangers down over the series? The Flyers have some big bodies at forward and defense. If utilized properly and without running around aimlessly causing a defense that resembles the Keystone Kops’ finest moments, the Flyers’ defense can tire the Rangers over time. Conversely, finishing checks in the offensive zone and quickly getting to the corners for the puck can wear down the Rangers’ D. Over a seven-game series, this is one of the small advantages a team can build through consistent use.

“Come back here with that puck, Ranger!”

  • A side-effect of the last question’s topic: Will use of the physical game wear themselves down too much that they are fodder for their next opponent (Columbus or Pittsburgh)? The Flyers really cannot worry about that as looking past their current opponent is a foolish pastime. They need to focus on the task at hand, one game at a time, one opponent at a time. Overlooking a team can spell disaster and a quick exit from the playoffs.
  • Another question that ties in with the physical play: Can the Flyers effectively create havoc in front of Rangers goalie Hank Lundqvist? The saying goes, “You can’t stop what you can’t see.” Lundqvist often stops even tough screened shots because he is an exceptional goalie with great reads. So, the bodies of Flyers like Scott Hartnell and Wayne Simmonds must get to the low slot and run interference for their teammates.
  • How will the two clubs’ special teams affect the series? The Rangers’ power play ranked 15th in the regular season at 18.2% while their penalty kill ranked 3rd at 85.3%. The Flyers’ power play ranked 8th at 19.7% and their penalty kill ranked 7th at 84.8% efficiency. It has been said the Flyers relied too heavily on their power play this season and even more so on Captain Claude Giroux. To succeed in this first round, they will need more than their captain’s line to pot goals and more than their first PP unit to get solid scoring chances and goals. They also need to be aware of the Rangers’ PK as they ranked 3rd in short-handed goals with 10 while the Flyers finished tied for 10th with 8 SHG. The Flyers power play too often gave up short-handers, 11 to be exact, which was 28th (or 3rd-worst) in the NHL. The Rangers gave up 7 SHG’s themselves, ranking 17th (or 14th-worst).
  • Can Jason Akeson hang with the big club for the playoff run? Steve Downie is apparently hurt and someone with hockey skills is needed to fill out the Couturier/Read line. Tye McGinn showed promise during his first call-up in the autumn, but has been ineffective and nigh invisible during his second stint with the Flyers.  At this point, I would give Akeson a go before McGinn. Akeson may not be anything regarded by many as anything more than an AHLer but he sees the ice well enough to make good offensive zone passes and has a good shot himself. Unless Downie is 100%, I would give Akeson a go. I know the reasons why it’s a longshot and probably won’t be longterm as the knocks on Akeson are that he’s too easily knocked off the puck, too often beaten to pucks, and would be exposed defensively against the Rangers but he beats out McGinn in my book at this time due to the latter’s invisibility of late.
  • Going hand in hand with the prior question: Will Steve Downie be shut down? Is he too beat up/worn down? When Downie returned from the injury suffered in his first game back as a Flyer, he clicked with Sean Couturier and Matt Read. Can he recapture that magic with them and help Couturier’s line be a supportive second or third line that can defend well and also score or is he effectively finished for the season?

There are other questions to pose going into next season, but it’s still “this season,” so I’ll keep those thoughts and questions for later. Hopefully, much later!

Happy hockey and “Let’s go, Flyers!”
Michael Gross

Flyers Rangers – It Does Not Get Better!

MTR = My Team Rivals

It’s why we are here it’s why we love sports.

Let’s face it these teams do not like one another.

This will make for great playoff hockey as this is the best series of the opening round.  Two teams that have shown that on any given night they can beat anyone.

Question is can either team do it consistently?

Can anyone remember the last time the Flyer swept a playoff series?

1995 versus the New York Rangers.

If the Flyers are to have any hope against the Rangers they are going to have to take the series quick.  The longer the series goes the more it will favor the Rangers as their defense is solid.

 

Flyers 2014 – Can they make a run at Stanley?

The “final” NHL season starts for the Flyers on Thursday Night versus the long time rival New York Rangers.

Can they get passed the Rangers and move on?

Sure, but what then?

The Flyers would really have to turn up their game as they would probably play Pittsburgh.

I am not afraid of Pittsburgh.

Boston has been by far the best team in the NHL.  If one of those teams could knock off the Bruins the Flyers might have a change to get to the Cup.

Then who knows.  No one in the west scares me like Boston.

Go Flyers!

 

Flyers Victorious in Penultimate Game

Philadelphia Flyers

For the Philadelphia Flyers’ second to last game of the regular season against the host and rival Pittsburgh Penguins, a few of their regulars were rested. Nicklas Grossmann, Kimmo Timonen, and Steve Downie were healthy scratches along with the suspended Zac Rinaldo. Pittsburgh also held out a few of their regulars, including star center Evgeni Malkin and defenseman Brooks Orpik.

The Flyers prevailed in overtime, 4-3, with a backhander from defenseman Mark Streit two minutes into the extra frame.  The Flyers gave up the first goal of the game just two minutes into the first period, but responded with two goals from Jakub Voracek. His tallies came 17 minutes into the first period on the power play and 14 minutes into the second period. The Penguins refused to go away after the Flyers took leads of 2-1 and 3-2, forcing overtime on Kris Letang’s goal with just 37 seconds left in the third period.

The win locks up third place in the Metropolitan Division for the Flyers, ensuring they will face the New York Rangers in the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. There have been rumblings of fear and trepidation of late from Flyers fans when the potential match-up with the Rangers has been mentioned. The regular season woes the Flyers have endured against the Rangers over the last few years, especially in Madison Square Garden, has been used as evidence that the Flyers have no shot to win a seven-game series against the Blueshirts from Broadway.

Short memories apparently run rampant in the City of Brotherly Love’s fanbase. Similar doubtful and dreadful comments were made in 2008 when the Flyers, fresh off a season where they missed the playoffs due to being the last-place team in the league, returned to the postseason only to face a team they had not beaten all season in the second round. That team was the Montreal Canadiens and the Flyers ousted them in five games. It could have been a sweep had the stick of Jeff Carter not broken on a very late faceoff allowing the Habs to cash in with a late tying goal and eventual overtime winner. The Flyers recovered to win four straight in the series and move on to the Eastern Conference Final, where they  fell in five games to the Pittsburgh Penguins.

The Flyers beat the Rangers in Philadelphia in both games played there this season. The Wells Fargo Center crowd is notoriously raucous and passionate when the calendar flips to April and the postseason is underway. The Flyers can count on the crowd’s assistance in getting revved up. That does not assure three wins if they need them, but chances are the Flyers’ home ice will be an advantage.

Conversely, Madison Square Garden has been unfriendly to the Flyers since February 2011 when they last won a game there. They have dropped eight straight on the MSG ice. However, the Flyers have won 5 straight playoff games on the Rangers’ home ice, dating back to 1987. They last lost a playoff game in New York on April 12, 1987 in overtime Game 4 of the Patrick Division Semifinals. They won Game 6 on the same ice that year, clinching victory and starting the 5-game streak they are still “on.” Of course, the last time they met the Rangers in the playoffs was in 1997.

The point is, all these numbers are fun to bandy about and throw out there but they don’t really mean very much. After tomorrow’s game against the Carolina Hurricanes, the postseason begins. As the Flyers proved in 2008 and 2010, seeding does not matter all that much when execution and effort overcome opponents and the expectations of fans and “experts.” This idea, that seeding and regular season results do not matter much aside from making the playoffs in the first place, was further cemented when 8th-seeded Los Angeles won the Stanley Cup in their amazing run in 2012.

So, fear not, Flyers fans. This is your postseason. Root for your team. Do not be afraid. Sure, they may not be playing hockey together in two weeks’ time, but if they are “your team,” you love to see them play, you love even more to see them win, and you hate to see them lose, so root them on. That is what being a fan is all about. Enjoy the season while you have it. The complaints, suggestions for improvement via drafting, trading, and signing of free agents can wait until June. For now, take in sport’s finest playoffs for what they are: unscripted drama written by the players on the ice playing the greatest sport on the face of the earth.

Happy hockey,
Michael Gross

It Could Be Worse (Or “It’s Worse”)

Philadelphia Flyers

The Philadelphia Flyers stumbled against the host Tampa Bay Lightning last night, losing 4-2.  The Flyers eventually answered an early first-period Tampa goal with Wayne Simmonds’ tying goal late in the second period on the power play. This came after spending much time firing many shots at Tampa backup Anders Lindback. Lindback played well in net for the Lightning, turning aside 34 of 36 Philadelphia shots on goal. The Flyers seemed to be in great shape after the second, as they had dominated play for stretches even though they were not getting rewarded for it until Simmonds’ equalizer. The Flyers have been successful this season when they are within a goal entering the last stanza, so there was precedent for hoping they would leave Tampa with two points. Last night, though, the third belonged to the Bolts who outscored them 3-1 to cruise to victory. The Flyers showed more life in the second period than the third which is a bit concerning since they had incentive to win — keeping alive the hope of home ice in the first round of the playoffs.

Since the prospect of overtaking the Rangers has slipped away, the Flyers need to look at the teams on their heels in the standings lest they slide further and end up in one of the two wild-card seedings instead of third in the Metropolitan Division. If the Flyers retain the third seed in their division, they will face the New York Rangers. If the Columbus Blue Jackets overtake the Flyers for the third seed, the Flyers would slip to the first wild-card seed (7th in the Conference) and have to play the Pittsburgh Penguins. If the Blue Jackets take third and the Detroit Red Wings also overtake the Flyers in the wild-card standings, the Flyers would drop to the second wild-card seed (8th seed in the Conference) and have to face the Boston Bruins. While the Flyers have shown that they can play with the Bruins, they would need to prove themselves to viewers that they can beat Boston in a seven-game series. So, the Flyers could very well be considered to be stuck in a situation where the walls are just going to come down around them, ending their season in just one round.

Flyers:”It could be worse.”
*fans hear the noise around them*
Fans: “It’s worse.”
*Flyers get squished by their self-made circumstances*

Now, this is where fans can choose several paths to experience the rest of the NHL season. I will concentrate on those that do not involve walking away from the sport or changing team allegiances.  ;-)

For the optimists, the Flyers are in much better shape than many expected in October when they were considered a laughingstock with a 1-7-0 record. The optimists can say the Flyers hung with the Bruins and Blues in recent games, showing that they can put “Tiger” in the phrase “Paper Tiger.” Also, the team is mostly healthy and there is no wondering if Player X can return in time for Game Y or Series Z. The forward core can score and on any given night several players can be expected to get good scoring chances. The Flyers have seven 20+ goal-scorers and nearly ten players in double-digits (Michael Raffl and Mark Streit have 9 apiece). They will get their chances and can play with the best of the NHL’s teams as they often elevate their games against elite opponents.

For the pessimists, the Flyers’ failure to gain points in October when they are worth the same as they are in April, their failure to win key games against divisional opponents like the Columbus Blue Jackets and New York Rangers, their failure to improve the defensive core through trades to somehow swap out their wealth of stay-at-home defensemen for mobile playmaking d-men, their woes against the Rangers in recent years, the slow depreciation of defensive stalwart Kimmo Timonen, the over-reliance for energy on volatile Zac Rinaldo, and the costly defensive turnovers they commit could altogether mean the Flyers just aren’t very good despite their well-rounded scoring and above average power play.

For the realists, the Flyers are a team that has to execute to get out of its own zone and close up its team-wide defensive holes to succeed. If they keep the gap between the offense and defense too wide, miss assignments in the defensive zone, turn over the puck in high-risk areas, and the goaltenders do not hold up against the chances a flimsy defense can yield, they will be done after Round 1. However, if they can mitigate chances against with smart play, refrain from high-risk play and play within their limitations, and can mostly give up shots where their goalies (namely, Steve Mason in the playoffs) can see them, they can have success.

There are other ways to categorize the Flyers fanbase, but most Internet discussions seem to generally separate them into these three groups. What I find humorous is that often pessimists and optimists try to claim that they are realists.

For me, I actually prefer to remain optimistic. Life’s too short to waste hate and anger on sport . Sure, I get disappointed when the Flyers lose. They are “my” team — to root for, after all. I just don’t get a kick out of the rage that happens in the fanbase. The “Toughest Fans in Hockey” are too often using words like “terrified,” “scared,” etc. when it comes to talking about the team they supposedly support. Go bold or go home, I say. It’s Flyers hockey. They might not win, but the team tradition set by Fred Shero’s squads of never being outworked, win or lose, is the tradition I hold to most — and wish the Flyers would abide by, as well.

Happy hockey,
Michael Gross

Hudson Hockey – April 8, 2014

JP, BL, and Silva talk NHL stretch drive on the latest Hudson Hockey

HH April 8

Flyers in Playoffs – Now what?

The Flyers are in the big dance with three games to go.  Problem is that they are now tied with Columbus and 2 points behind the Rangers.  They have a game in had on both but play the Lightning and Pens the next few days before finishing with the Hurricanes.

It will be a tough road to pass the Rangers so at best they will start playoffs on road in NYC where they have not won since Bush was President.  Or if they fall behind Columbus they will start on the road in Boston.  If they play Boston they will be lucky to go 4 games.  It might be over before that.

The Flyers need to turn that magic back on and realize that it is not just making the playoffs it is winning once you get there which they have not done since 1975.

Winning the last three games of the season will be a good indicator of things to come.

Postseason Assured by Flyers in Florida Win

Philadelphia Flyers

The Philadelphia Flyers have accomplished what many felt was unthinkable half a year ago: making the Stanley Cup playoffs. Through the hardship of October, when they endured a 3-9 record, the Flyers broke out of their season-starting (and coach-changing) funk to sport one of the best records in the NHL over the next 67 games (38-20-9).

However, their work is not done because should they win their three remaining games (and the Rangers lose just one of their remaining two), the Flyers could end up with home ice in the first round of the playoffs. That’s a tall order, as the Flyers still have two more road games in Tampa (Thursday) and Pittsburgh (Saturday) before finishing their regular season at home, hosting the Carolina Hurricanes. The Rangers play the lowly Buffalo Sabres, the worst team in the entire league, at home Thursday before wrapping up their season in Montreal, who could also be fighting for home ice in the first round on the last day of their season.

The questions from those following the Flyers — “experts” and fans alike — are many. In what I would like to start as “my thing” in my blogs, I’d like to ask questions to spur talk about the team. Discussions can be carried out here in the comments section (below) or on Twitter, where my account name is @JustFlyskippy — my “hockey only” account. Eventually, I hope to join the MTR radio lineup and talk hockey via Internet radio. I’ll call this segment, “Questioning the Flyers,” though that could change as time or inspiration change. This might be a weekly segment or happen more frequently as the spirit moves me. Here goes the first attempt:

Craig Berube took over from Peter Laviolette in trying to “flip the switch” that takes the Flyers team from pretender to contender.

QUESTIONING THE FLYERS
- Has Claude Giroux “arrived” as Captain? As mentioned in my first blog, as he performs, so his team does. When he is scoring, the team is most probably winning. When his scoring dries up, the team’s winning ways disappear. Is he going to follow past captains Bob Clarke, Dave Poulin, and Chris Pronger in leading his team to the Stanley Cup Finals? Will he be like Eric Lindros — a victim of a team that is shut down when opposing teams shut him down and the remaining cast does not pick up the slack? It is possible he can “put the team on his back and drag them to success,” but if he gets shut down and no one else steps up, the Flyers will lose in a short series.

- Will Steve Mason receive his due credit? Sure, he lets in a softie from time to time, but all goalies have and all goalies do. Quite often, the term “softie” is used more often by those who dislike or harbor a grudge against a particular goaltender and less by those who like or hold a fondness for a particular goaltender. For much of this season, segments of the Flyers fanbase decried his play, citing how what he did in Columbus was a template from which he could not escape. If the Flyers win a round or two in the playoffs, will he be given his due credit? Does he deserve it already for getting the Flyers into the postseason this year?

- Will Sean Couturier turn into an offensive force? Will he score 20 goals in his career? He was saddled with some not-so-offensive wingers last season into this season before his line with Matt Read and Steve Downie became the Flyers’ best line for several games, especially a 6-3 come-from-behind win over the Detroit Red Wings on December 4. It was said at that time that he could become a real offensive force if given proper linemates that complement his two-way play. Read and Downie (before his injury troubles) certainly seemed to do that. Hopefully, Downie can be the guy he was from November into December when he was a part of Couturier’s line.

- Can the Flyers defense hold up? This is not a question of the eight men that are listed as defensemen on the Flyers’ roster. This is pointed at the entire team’s defense. Can they hold up against the New York Rangers, Pittsburgh, Detroit, Columbus, Montreal, Tampa Bay, and/or (current favorite to win the Eastern Conference) Boston? I think they can, if they play like they did against Boston and St. Louis during the last weekend in March.

- Why do they play the “Charge” song, usually played at baseball games, at Flyers games — or any ice hockey game, for that matter? Charging is a penalty. (Ok, that last isn’t about the Flyers, per se.)

- Finally, how deep will the Flyers go into the playoffs? I actually think they will win the first round against the Rangers, whether they have home ice or not. Sure, I might be daft. You might think it orange-glassed biased thinking. I believe it’s a matter of resilience. This team has shown some tremendous heart, especially late in games. This optimistic belief is also held despite showing some long-held traditions long-time fans see coming a mile away (such as giving up a goal within two minutes of the Flyers having scored, allowing goals to former Flyers, and allowing goals to any player who has not scored since Noah built the ark), but I was optimistic about the Flyers in 2008 and 2010 and both of those teams went further than they were “supposed to.” This year’s team has especially reminded me of that 2007-08 team.

Happy hockey,
Michael

Follow the Flyers at MTRphilly.com, on our NEW Facebook page, and Twitter. For the best sports talk listen to great shows on MTR Radio 24/7 and follow us on our FREE apps for your IOS and Android devices.

Flyers Buffalo Their Way Closer to Playoff Berth

Philadelphia Flyers

With just a handful of games left in their regular season, the Philadelphia Flyers team finds itself labeled as a contender – or even elite — in some quarters and an also-ran in others. Tonight’s 5-2 home victory against the Buffalo Sabres found the Flyers hosting what could have been termed a “trap game” – one in which the team with the better record overlooks their opponent much like the tortoise was shrugged off as irrelevant competition by the hare in Aesop’s fable.  After a first period in which inconsistent play meant they had a mere 1-0 lead against what was effectively an AHL Buffalo club, to their credit they turned in a better effort in the second period and pulled away.  As is often the case when a team builds a big lead, the Flyers took their collective foot off the pedal and the Sabres outscored the Flyers in the third period, two goals to one.

The Flyers were supposed to beat up the Sabres like Monty Python’s Flying Circus’ Ken Clean Air Systems (John Cleese) did to Petula Cox (Connie Booth)

In light of the three games prior to Sunday night, the Flyers had been in danger of having a very good season marred by bookends of lackluster offensive production which could cost them home ice in the playoffs or even a playoff berth itself.  They started the season stalling offensively and, in the last three games, appeared to have once again fallen into a scoring slump. Like the Edmonton game where team captain Claude Giroux scored his first goal of the season and had played tremendously from that point until the March 28 game against the Toronto Maple Leafs before going cold once more, tonight’s game could be seen as a potential “get off the hook” game for the club in the hopes of straightening out their recent offensive woes. Now the Flyers find themselves needing four points to clinch a playoff spot. A win on Tuesday at Florida combined with a New Jersey Devils loss would lock up their playoff berth. Conversely, if the Flyers win out all of their games, they would become the 2nd seed in the Metropolitan Division and gain home ice in the first round against the 3rd seed in the same division.

The success of Mark Streit on the power play tonight might inspire the Flyers to move him onto the first power play unit in place of longtime first-unit stalwart Kimmo Timonen. Timonen has certainly lost a step in the past couple of years and perhaps it is time to give way to another on the special teams unit in the hopes of keeping him fresher 5-on-5.

Although it did not show against a young Sabres squad on Sunday night, a concern for the Flyers could be that as Claude Giroux goes, so does the team. As he struggled out of the gate in October, so did the team. When he went cold after the March 28 Leafs game, so did the team. Like the Eric Lindros-led Flyers teams of the late 90’s, if the Giroux line’s ability to score is mitigated in the 2014 Stanley Cup Playoffs, the Flyers will not get far unless they get their other lines scoring in the Giroux line’s place. It is evident with six (almost seven) 20+ goal-scorers on their roster that there is plenty of scoring to go around but the fact of the matter is that the Flyers’ fortunes have been tied to Giroux’s all season thus far. If they want to go deep into the playoffs, Giroux needs to be a game-changer game in and game out.

Follow the Flyers at MTRphilly.com, on our NEW Facebook page, and Twitter. For the best sports talk listen to great shows on MTR Radio 24/7 and follow us on our FREE apps for your IOS and Android devices.

Flyers Fighting for Playoff Life

Let’s face it the Flyers are fighting for their playoff life.  Their magic number is 4 points at this point to get into the playoffs (and they are going to need every point).  They should make the playoffs given their upcoming schedule but if they don’t want to exit in 4 games they are going to need to make a move now.  First, they are 2 points behind the Rangers who have helped the Flyers by going on their own little losing streak.  The Flyers have a game in hand and will need those two points to put pressure on the Rangers for home ice advantage.  If the Flyers can’t win in NYC they will not make it passed the first round so home ice is huge.

A bigger problem the Flyers might have is if they let Columbus get ahead of them in the standings.  This would mean starting the playoffs in Boston which is a series the Flyers would be lucky to go 4 games before it was over.

Coach Berube has to get the most out of the Flyer in their last 5 games so that they have half a chance in the playoffs.  And waiting until the last game is way too dangerous.  The time is now.

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