Michael Russo has covered the National Hockey League since 1995. He has covered the Minnesota Wild for the Star Tribune since 2005, after 10 years of covering the Florida Panthers for the Sun-Sentinel. He uses “Russo’s Rants” to feed a wide-ranging hockey-centric discussion with readers, and can be heard weekly on KFAN (100.3 FM) radio and seen weekly on Fox Sports North.
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Not that we condone gambling here at Russo’s Rants, but once it was announced Devan Dubnyk would be getting the night off tonight and that the Wild’s three top goal scorers heading into this evening – Zach Parise, Nino Niederreiter and Thomas Vanek – wouldn’t be playing, the Predators went from -125 to -166 favorites.
What’s Vegas know?
The Wild has been road warriors for two months, and tonight, it didn’t matter the goalie or the lineup, the Wild won in Nashville for the third time since late February by rallying from an early 2-0 deficit to win 4-2.
It was the Wild’s 12th consecutive road win, tying the 2005-06 Detroit Red Wings for the longest road winning streak in NHL history. If the Wild wins out Saturday in St. Louis with a 13th in a row, the Wild will stand alone atop that record in the NHL Guide and Record Book.
That would be pretty cool, said Mike Yeo, the coach who has coached the Wild to its second 100-point year in franchise history.
OK, the scenarios (which hopefully I don’t have to correct in the morning): The Wild clinched at least the top wildcard spot tonight.
-- IF it beats St. Louis on Saturday AND Chicago loses in regulation at Colorado, the Wild finishes third in the Central and returns to Nashville for the start of the playoffs.
--This one is complicated-sounding: The Wild would play Anaheim if the Blues get more points than the Ducks, who play at Arizona on Saturday, or if St. Louis beats the Wild in regulation or overtime and the Ducks win in a shootout.
--Any other outcome, the Wild would face the Blues in the first round.
So, there’s like a 65 percent chance the Wild faces the Blues, I believe.
Gutsy effort by Darcy Kuemper tonight, who gave up two goals on the first five shots he saw in his first start since Jan. 6 and first action since Jan. 20. The first goal by Filip Forsberg skipped on the ice and hopped. The second goal sailed through traffic.
But Kuemper put it behind him, got better as the game went along and was at his best in the third period when the Wild most needed him. He stopped the final 29 shots he saw for 32 saves. Not easy given his lack of play the past three months, the pressure he was facing and the fact in the first period I thought the Wild wasn’t getting into shooting lanes and dodging checks left and right.
“Real happy for him,” Yeo said. “And I’m happy with the way our guys played in front of him to give him that chance, but when we needed him most, he was at his best. Some good mental toughness by him the way the game started. That first puck bounced and that would be difficult for any goalie. That second one he didn’t see it, so for him to be able to collect himself and stay in the game the way he did and for our guys to keep fighting, that’s story No. 1. What’s No. 2?”
Depth. The Wild’s deep. Seventy-seven goals were out of the lineup tonight with no Parise, Vanek or Niederreiter in there, yet Jason Zucker and Marco Scandella scored 31 seconds apart late in the second, Jason Pominville scored the winner with 2:03 left and Zucker added an empty-netter that also earned Mikko Koivu his 500th point.
Zucker’s goal snapped the Wild’s 0 for 22, 13-game road power-play-goal drought. He scored his 20th and 21st goals to become the fourth Wild player to hit that mark this year. Scandella’s highlight-reel, spinorama goal (described in the gamer) was his 10th and first since Dec. 29.
“That’s big,” Yeo said of the depth, before talking about guys like Sean Bergenheim and Jordan Schroeder and Matt Cooke. “I would also say the guys we brought into the lineup, that’s a good sign when you talk about the depth. Those guys did what we were expecting them to do. They all made a statement for themselves tonight and certainly we’ve got some tough decisions ahead.”
Cooke and Schroeder assisted on the Scandella goal.
By the way, Mikael Granlund keeps winning big draws since he fell on the knife a few weeks ago with his faceoff weakness. He won a draw in Chicago that led to his goal and tonight, Pominville dug a puck out for a Granlund faceoff win and then buried the winner on a Jared Spurgeon setup. That goal also allowed St. Louis to win the division.
Kuemper felt reassurance that he can win in an actual game after so much traffic. He said it felt great to be a part of it again and Yeo said he’s confident he can be a safety net to Dubnyk in the playoffs.
“He did it last year for us,” Yeo said. “He came in and helped us win a series last year. We’ve never lost confidence in him. Between him and Backy, those guys have not not been playing because we don’t believe they can win. It’s because Dubey didn’t give us a choice with the level of play that he was at. So we’re real happy for him and obviously it’s a good thing for us.”
Kuemper said, “I told myself going into the game I just wanted to get better as it went along and just working on getting my game feet wet again. How about the guys sticking with it tonight? We go down 2-0, it would have been pretty easy to start feeling sorry for themselves, but they kept battling for me. Hats off to them.
“It was easy to move past that and just keep working on things. The speed started coming back to me the more we went. By the end of the first period, I was feeling pretty good in there.”
Koivu said, “Both him and Backy, the way they’ve been handling not playing in a game for a long time – all the credit to them with the way they’ve been working and practicing. I think it’s a little bit easier on Darcy as a younger goalie, but Backstrom also, the way he’s been handling that, skating with us and working hard and getting those pucks every single day. You’ve got to give them credit. Obviously happy for him. It’s a big win.”
Zucker said, “We had a lot of different line combinations with guys that hadn’t played together much. So I think there was a little bit of an adjustment in the first period. But Kuemper played great, out D core played great, and as far as the forwards there was a bit of an adjustment but we just had to battle back and the guys did that tonight.
The Wild is two goals from breaking the team record for goals of 226 set in 2005-06.
34.4 goal pace for Jason Zucker had he played a full season
34 third-period Wild goals since Feb. 22 (22 games, most in NHL)
9 third-period goals allowed by Wild since Feb. 22 (fewest in NHL)
That’s it for me. 6:40 a.m. flight. Practice is at 2 p.m. Follow me on Twitter.
I will say, late, late blog will be coming Friday barring news because not only do I have a ton of phone interviews to do in preparation for playoff previews, I’m sitting down with a few players after practice.
So make sure you follow me on Twitter at @russostrib if you want instant stuff.
Oodles and oodles of news heading into tonight’s Wild-Nashville Predators game, and I’ll be on Fox Sports North tonight during the pregame show and first intermission to talk about much of it and let you know what I’m thinking in terms of my end of year awards voting.
The Wild, two days after clinching a playoff berth in Chicago, will be without its top-3 leading goal scorers tonight as it tries to tie the NHL record with a 12th consecutive road win.
Zach Parise, Nino Niederreiter and Thomas Vanek, who have scored 77 of the Wild’s 221 goals (34.8 percent), won’t play. They all have nagging injuries, but the plan is for them to play in Saturday’s finale at St. Louis. Niederreiter has the foot injury, Vanek had the groin a month ago that he has been playing through and really struggled with his skating against the Blackhawks and Parise joked that he was “under the weather.”
“I guess it’s a good luxury to have, but at the same time you want to make sure you’re staying sharp and game ready,” Parise said. “I’m sure we’ll all be in the lineup Saturday.”
On what’s ailing him, Parise said, who has a team-leading 32 goals, said, “There’s been a lot of hard games lately. Everyone’s, I’m sure, got some bumps and bruises.”
“Maintenance day,” he said, smiling. “Of course I want to play. I was fully planning on playing, but in the long run, it’s probably better not to right now.”
Justin Fontaine and Sean Bergenheim weren’t supposed to play, but after line rushes, they were informed they would be playing and Parise and Niederreiter would sit. Niederreiter huddled on the ice after practice with coach Mike Yeo and athletic therapist Don Fuller, and it was decided he wouldn’t play.
He was very much visibly hurting in Chicago after being nailed by a Matt Dumba slapper late in Monday’s loss to Winnipeg.
“I just had to battle through,” Niederreiter said. “I had a couple good looks with Charlie and Schroeds. But when you’re not 100 percent, you go into battles differently and skating-wise, sometimes you change your skating and push more off your other leg.
“I could have played tonight, but they gave me the day off. As a player, you want to play. But we clinched the playoffs, so this is the safer side and I’ll be ready for St. Louis.”
Matt Cooke will return after missing 31 games with a sports hernia. He missed 22 games earlier this season with a hip injury. So he has only played 27 games.
He’s excited to play and “I’m just excited to get out there and help. I feel conditioning-wise I’m there. Game speed stuff, I don’t really have a choice, I’ve got to go out and play my game and get up to speed as quick as I can.”
Same defensemen, although Yeo made clear that Saturday’s lineup may look very much like the lineup they plan to start the playoffs with and Nate Prosser is expected back in.
However, he also said that the lineup they use in the playoffs could depend on the opponent. There are scenarios for the Wild to face St. Louis, Nashville, Anaheim or Chicago and “Certain players may be a better fit against certain opponents.”
Very interesting though tonight that Erik Haula doesn’t draw in, especially inside an arena where he had a great game in back in February. He is deep in the doghouse again, it appears.
Niklas Backstrom will back up Darcy Kuemper tonight.
Joked Yeo, “Devan Dubnyk is a healthy scratch tonight. I didn’t like that last goal in Chicago.”
In all seriousness, Yeo, in explaining why he won’t dress, said, “I think a night mentally completely off will be good for him.”
Why Kuemper tonight instead of Saturday? “To play Duby today, it would be three games in four days and I don’t think that makes a lot of sense right now [with a playoff berth clinched] and if we would play him today and not Saturday, that’s too long in between games.”
He means there that if he played today and not Saturday, that would be six or seven days without a game for Dubnyk depending on whether the Wild opens the playoffs Wednesday or Thursday.
On if he’s worried that the Blues could crash the net and take liberties with Dubnyk if there’s a chance the Wild is their first-round opponent, Yeo said, “You can’t operate like that right now. You can’t make decisions based on fear. You’ve got to make decisions on what’s best for the group. … Obviously I don’t think that any team that we’re playing is going to want to have suspensions going into the start of the playoffs either.”
On Kuemper making his first start since Jan. 6, Yeo said, “He’s been working hard. There was a time there where there was an awful lot of pressure on both of our goalies and with that our team I don’t think was playing our best game in front of them. Our game in front of our goaltenders has been better and hopefully we give him a good chance to succeed tonight. My message to Darcy was plain and simple: none of us really know what to expect. He looks really good in practice and we’re all hopeful he can come in and play a great game. What I want to see is him not focused on the score, just going out there and battling on every shot right now and hopefully as the game’s going on getting stronger through his game.”
Yeo insists there are so many scenarios, he has spent very little time thinking about which opponent the Wild may get in the first round.
Nashville coach Peter Laviolette said the same thing.
Kuemper said, “I’m definitely excited.”
He was told after the Chicago game that it was probable he’d start tonight, “so I had a few days to prepare here.”
There will be inevitable rust. He hasn’t played since Jan. 20 in the NHL or started since Jan. 6, so chillax if he struggles. But they want to give him a game in case he’s needed in the playoffs.
“You’ve just got to be excited and ready to compete and give yourself a chance to make saves,” Kuemper said.
Watching Dubnyk, Kuemper said, “I’ve learned tons. It’s been tough in the sense you want to be out there playing. The team’s been doing awesome and been on quite the run here. It’s a fun thing to be a part of even if I’m not playing.”
It would not shock me if this is the last we see of Backstrom in a Wild uniform tonight. I just don’t think alternating goalies in the playoffs will be Yeo’s plan, and as I have assumed for months, Backstrom will be moved this summer, whether it’s via trade or buyout.
I’ll have a funny Matt Cullen note in Friday’s paper, too, and check out my Sunday column this week on whom I plan to vote for with my awards balloting.
That’s it for now.
Morning from Nashville.
If you didn't read Chip Scoggins' awesome story on Chris Stewart today, check that out here.
Here's my story on how far the Wild has come since the Jan. 14 Devan Dubnyk trade.
In that story, I also reported that it was believed Dubnyk's run of 39 consecutive starts (38 for the Wild) would come to an end tonight and that Darcy Kuemper would make his first since Jan. 6 tonight against the Predators.
Coach Mike Yeo confirmed that this morning on KFAN.
Dubnyk's 39 straight starts was the most in the NHL since Evgeni Nabokov started 43 in a row for the San Jose Sharks in 2007-08.
In 38 starts for the Wild, Dubnyk is 27-8-2 (one no decision) with a 1.73 goals-against average and .938 save percentage.
Kuemper's lone action since getting hurt in practice Jan. 7 came Jan. 20 in Detroit when he played 38 minutes in relief of Dubnyk. Kuemper stopped 14 of 14 shots and the Wild rallied from a 4-1, third-period deficit before suffering a shootout loss.
He did take part in a two-week AHL conditioning stint from Jan. 27-Feb. 8, going 2-3 with a 3.22 goals-against average, .891 save percentage and one shutout with Iowa.
Kuemper is 13-12-2 this season with a 2.62 goals-against average, .904 save percentage and three shutouts. He got off to a solid start this year before his game started to take a turn for the worse in mid to late November.
I talked to Kuemper the other day about getting a start in one of the final games.
“It’ll be fun to definitely be back in there,” Kuemper said. “You obviously want to play. This last little bit hasn’t been easy, but I’m just doing my best to stay sharp in practice and be supportive of the team.
“I know what I can do. I feel I’m a better goalie now than I was at the start of the year with all this practice. I feel my game is in a pretty good place right now.”
Obviously, there will be inevitable rust. This won't be an easy game as the Wild looks to tie the NHL record set by the 2005-06 Detroit Red Wings with a 12th consecutive road win.
Dubnyk is expected to start Saturday's season finale against St. Louis.
There was a lot of internal debate as to which game Kuemper should start. Part of the concern was putting Dubnyk in harm's way against the Blues, a rugged team that the Wild may face in the first round, and during a game where players may not want to go all out in order to avoid injury. Remember last year's rout by the Predators against Minnesota in the home finale?
Historically (coincidence or not), the Wild has gotten goalies hurt in St. Louis (Manny Fernandez, Josh Harding, Niklas Backstrom and Kuemper), including Kuemper last year when David Backes ran him twice.
But in the end, Yeo didn't want Dubnyk basically having eight or nine days between starts (Tuesday in Chicago to the start of the playoffs Wednesday or Thursday).
I'd suspect Matt Cooke returns tonight. He has missed 30 games with a sports hernia. It wouldn't shock me if Nino Niederreiter rests in his injured foot. More after the morning skates.
Road sweet road.
There were almost a dozen scenarios, some more complicated than others, that could have clinched the Wild a playoff spot Tuesday night. That’s how it works in a league where there are shootouts, regulation/overtime tiebreakers and three-point games.
By the far the simplest scenario involved the Wild just taking care of business once and for all. It was a win-and-in prescription, and the Wild got it done with a 2-1 victory over the Chicago Blackhawks.
Please check out the gamer here because there’s some good scene-setting stuff from the postgame locker room.
Eleventh consecutive road victory for the Wild. That stands alone for second in NHL history. If the Wild can beat Nashville in Nashville on Thursday, the Wild will tie the 2005-06 Detroit Red Wings for longest road winning streak in NHL history (12).
“A little bit of stress here the last week, a little bit of tension, but the fact that we won 11 straight road games to get ourselves in the playoffs, I mean, that’s unbelievable,” Yeo said.
What was also unbelievable?
The fact I was standing in the same locker room that Jan. 10 that caused me to lead my game story with this:
CHICAGO – The Wild’s in full-scale, five-alarm, DEFCON 1 crisis mode.
“I was talking with Zach [Parise], and we’ve never been through, … we’ve never seen anything like this,” defenseman Ryan Suter said after the Wild’s 11th loss in 13 games, a 4-1 whipping Sunday night from the Chicago Blackhawks. “I don’t know what the heck is going on, but every day’s a bad day right now.”
When I noted to Yeo the irony that the Wild was experiencing the season’s highest point in the same spot it experienced the season’s lowest point three months ago, Yeo pointed out that two nights later in Pittsburgh was probably a little lower.
But three days after that Blackhawks loss, the Wild acquired Devan Dubnyk, and here we are – a postseason berth for a third consecutive season after being 12th in the West in January and getting smoked seemingly nightly.
“This was only one step. We have bigger plans,” Yeo said. “Very, very proud of our guys for what they overcame, the way that everyone dug in together.”
Mikael Granlund and Jason Zucker (yes, that Zucker) broke a scoreless tie less than four minutes apart midway through the third period. Zucker’s goal became the winning goal in his first game since Feb. 9. If he scores in the final two games, it’ll be his first 20-goal season.
Zucker said it wasn’t his best game by any stretch, but he got better as the game went along, made plays and scored a huge goal. He also took a mammoth hit from Brent Seabrook two shifts before his goal to give Minnesota a 2-0 lead.
“As the game went on, he got better every shift,” Yeo said. “Things were happening a little quick early in the game, he was rushing a few plays. But a guy like that, with his speed, he has the ability to find his game through the course of a game in a tough place to make that happen. That’s what he brings. His speed, his hockey smarts find him in those positions and he’s obviously got the finish.”
On National Beer Day, Yeo vowed to honor the tradition on the Wild’s flight to Nashville.
“The leadership tonight was just amazing,” Yeo said, talking about his veteran’s composure on the bench, in the dressing room and their play on the ice.
Zach Parise was extraordinary, assisting on Granlund’s goal and really setting the tone in the second period with some crazy, Parise-like effort on a penalty kill.
Ryan Suter saved a goal in the third by winning a puck battle with Andrew Shaw.
Dubnyk made 32 saves and improved to 15-1-1 on the road with a 1.42 goals-against average and .953 save percentage and 5-0-1 in his past six second of back-to-back games with a 1.14 goals-against average and .968 save percentage.
“What a great story, the fact that he comes in here and plays that game tonight, what he’s done for us,” Yeo said. “This is all new for him too, dealing with the pressure of making the playoffs and this is great experience going into the playoffs.”
Yeo said the Wild has “bigger plans” than just making the playoffs.
He said he hasn’t yet thought about how he’ll handle the last two games. My guess is Darcy Kuemper plays the season finale in St. Louis, especially if you’re going to play the Blues in the first round. The last thing you want is the Blues taking runs at Dubnyk.
Yeo would like to go after this consecutive road win streak record, but he also wants to give guys like Matt Cooke a chance to get in and to get guys rest. On the other hand, you don’t want guys getting stale before the playoffs start next Wednesday or Thursday. The Wild just had four days off and we saw what happened.
You want guys to stay sharp.
Also, Dubnyk said, while he imagines he’ll get one of the two final games off, “I wouldn’t expect to have a week and a half off. I don’t think that’d be very good. We want to continue the winning feeling going into the playoffs. These are both teams we could be facing in first or second round.”
Suter said, “We’ve gone through a lot this year. A lot of ups and downs and mumps and different injuries, sicknesses, it’s very rewarding to know we’re on to the next round here.”
On reflecting on what this team accomplished this second half, Suter said with a laugh, “We tried that the last week and that didn’t work too well. The four days, I think guys were starting to think about how good we were and it didn’t help us. Hopefully we don’t reflect too much here.”
On this team compared to the one in January that was in Chicago, Parise said, “We’re a different team than we were then. We’re playing just better as a group. From goaltending out, we’re playing a better team game.
“It’s rewarding. We made it interesting the last few games, but it’s rewarding to get in.”
Check out the gamer and the Jason Zucker notebook here.
FYI, from the Wild: Ticket availability for all 2015 NHL Stanley Cup Playoff home games at Xcel Energy Center is expected to be extremely limited due to incredible demand and priority access given to Wild Season Ticket Holders.
"Fan support for the Minnesota Wild has always been awesome, but this season it's reached a whole new level," said Wild Chief Operating Officer Matt Majka. "Our Season Ticket Holders are renewing in record numbers and more are joining the 'Team of 18,000' each day. Many have been with us since day one and we are thrilled to be able to once again offer them the playoff experience they so rightly deserve."
The Wild is currently in the process of fulfilling Season Ticket Holder playoff ticket requests. Should single-game playoff tickets become available for the general public, they will be released the day prior to each scheduled home game. Information regarding ticket availability will be announced as soon as it is available.
No practice Wednesday. I’ll blog if there’s news. Otherwise, it’s work ahead time and check out Chip Scoggins’ awesome story on Chris Stewart in Thursday’s paper.
Coach Mike Yeo kept us in the dark about the Wild’ lineup against the Chicago Blackhawks, but Nino Niederreiter has a bruised foot (not a break) and will play and there’s a very, very, very good possibility Jason Zucker returns from a broken collarbone unless he says he’s unable after warmups.
Zucker has missed 26 games since Feb. 9 and certainly looked like a guy prepping to play. The Wild has won a franchise-record 10 consecutive road games and is 6-2-4 in the second of back-to-backs this year (thanks to Devan Dubnyk).
My guess is Jordan Schroeder plays for Ryan Carter.
My guess is if Zucker returns, Erik Haula is out.
My guess is defenseman Jordan Leopold plays for Nate Prosser.
My guess is Matt Cooke’s return waits.
My guess is Dubnyk starts. He is 4-0-1 in the second of back-to-backs with a 1.17 goals-against average and .967 save percentage since being pulled Jan. 20 at Detroit. Dubnyk is 14-1-1 in 17 road starts with a 1.44 goals-against average and .952 save percentage.
The Wild would clinch a playoff berth if they defeat the Blackhawks in regulation or overtime OR if they win in a shootout AND any of the following occurs:
* The Wild also would clinch a playoff berth if they lose to the Blackhawks in overtime or a shootout AND any of the following occurs:
* If the Wild lose to the Blackhawks in regulation, they would clinch a playoff berth if both the Flames and Kings lose in regulation.
Only in the NHL can you have clinching scenarios this complicated. The fun part is everybody plays tonight: L.A at Edmonton (Kings beat the Oilers 8-zip last week). Calgary vs. Arizona (Coyotes stink). Jets playing in St. Louis. Tough game for Winnipeg.
Plain, simple: If the Wild wins in regulation or overtime, and the Wild’s in.
Let’s see if it can take care of business … this time.
Yeo on Niederreiter: “I think he’s going to be fine. There’s no breaks. Just a bit of a bruise. I’m expecting him to play. There’s no damage there.”
On the lineup, Yeo said, “We’re contemplating a few [changes], but there’s nothing set in stone.”
On Zucker, “There is a possibility that he could be in.”
Yeo said Cooke is “getting close. We have lineup decisions to make for tonight. We’ve got a lot of guys at our disposal. Everybody brings something different to the table. Zuck, his speed and the season that he’s been having, we’re very hopeful that he can come in and get up to speed in a real hurry and has the ability to play in different roles.”
Cooke, Yeo said is a veteran guy, a big part of “our PK, real effective in his role especially this time of year.”
On being battle tested for this, Yeo said, “We’ve faced adversity before, whether it was at different points of this season, whether it was previous years. Certainly whenever you’re in a situation like this, you want to draw upon that. And thats where the value of leadership comes in, just kind of showing the way. It’s not about what you say, it’s about how you go out and perform. When you step over the boards, the message you’re sending to the group that we have there.”
Asked though if he loses sleep that the Wild never does anything the easy way, Yeo said, “That’s kind of been our MO (smiling). That’s OK. Nothing good comes easy. But there really is no easy way. We played a very desperate, very good hockey team last night. We lost a hockey game, that happens. When we wake up this morning, there’s still a bitter taste in our mouth. Bottom line is, we’re still in a better position than most teams. We have three hard games coming up, but we’ve been a real good team over this last little stretch. We just have to make sure we’re ready each game to assert ourselves.”
Zucker said he has taken some contact from teammates in full equipment, but he said let’s be honest, “Full equipment isn’t really full equipment. You don’t know how it really feels until it happens in a game.”
Zucker said if he plays, “I’ll be ready. But I haven’t heard anything yet. It’s always a little bit different. Obviously none of your teammates want to crush you in practice or anything like that, but as far as what I’ve been doing, it’s been feeling good.”
On being out so long and how rusty he thinks he’ll be with the league so playoff-ready, Zucker said, “You never know. This is a hard time of year to be playing. It’s definitely a fun time to be playing, as well. I’ve obviously been out awhile, but I just want to get back in there.
“The process takes awhile, but once you get to this point and you’re almost playing again, it’s definitely fun. I know for myself, it’s just wanting to get back out there and help the team.”
Niederreiter said of the Matt Dumba blast that hit him, “I was just trying to get out of the way and hope it went in the net. But then it hit my foot. It was a great shot and we want the D to shoot the puck and sometimes you get hit.
“I was very happy that nothing major happened.”
Brad Richards is out for the Blackhawks with an upper-body injury. Patrick "Stanchion" Kane is still out with the broken collarbone. Bryan Bickell playing, so 1-0 Hawks already.
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