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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The Wild is giving 25-year-old skilled winger Michael Keranen, one of the Finnish Elite League's top scorers a season ago, a shot.
With Thomas Vanek questionable to play tonight against the Calgary Flames, Iowa's second-leading scorer was recalled by the Wild this morning to likely make his NHL debut. He would be the second Wild player to make his NHL debut this season (Tyler Graovac). Keranen's a winger, Graovac a center, and the Wild needs a winger if Vanek is hurt.
"[Keranen's] earned this opportunity," director of minor-league operations Jim Mill said by phone from Charlotte, where the Iowa Wild faces the Checkers tonight.
Keranen is second behind Graovac in Iowa scoring with 32 points (9 goals) in 52 games and a team-leading 23 assists. He is minus-7 and second on the team with 113 shots.
Keranen had 17 goals and 35 assists for Ilves Tampere in Finland's Elite League last season. The 6-1, 175-pounder tied for the Elite League lead in scoring with 52 points and won the Golden Helmet Award as the league's best player. Keranen had 13 goals in 2012-13 for Ilves, a team he has played for during the past four seasons. He's a left-handed shooter and was signed as a European free agent last June.
He flashed skill in training camp, assisting on two goals in an exhibition win against Winnipeg, but the Wild sent him to the minors to adjust to the North American pro game. In camp, he was getting used to the Wild's system defensively, had a tendency to overpass and needed to improve in the dirty areas and with his strength on the puck. That has by all accounts also been a work in progress during his first year pro in Iowa.
But there's no denying Keranen's skill and speed, and after Monday's loss in Vancouver, the Wild's clearly looking for an influx of skill.
"He’s a smart hockey player," Mill said. "He thinks the game real well and he’s had to adjust to the smaller ice surface, which he’s done and done well.
"I think the pace of game, because he doesn’t have as much room, that’s where he’s had to adapt and he has. He’s been very, very good for us down here for, geez, a month or two. He was always fine, but his game has gotten better specifically over the last month."
Keranen was born in Stockholm, Sweden, but grew up in Finland and has represented Finland in international events.
The Wild's morning skate is at 11:30 a.m. Mountain Time. We'll see then if the lineup tonight includes Vanek and Keranen is replacing somebody else or if Keranen plays for Vanek. Coach Mike Yeo wasn't very convincing yesterday when he said he expected Vanek to play. And Vanek has been walking with a visible limp the last little while and has been clearly playing through a lower-body injury lately.
The Wild woke up this morning in Calgary, the sun was out, the sky didn’t fall, life moved on and they got right back on the horse to combine a bunch of bad clichés, sayings, analogies, whatever.
Afternoon from Calgary, where the Wild just got done with practice at the Saddledome prior to tonight's Western Hockey League clash between the Calgary Hitmen and the Medicine Hat Tigers.
As you know, the Wild, which was 8-0-2 in 10 games since Jan. 19, lost one game against Vancouver, then looked at the highlights and discovered the Flames rallied from three down to beat Boston on a fluke goal with 2.4 seconds left in OT and that the Winnipeg Jets rallied three times from a goal down to beat Edmonton in a shootout and that the L.A. Kings rallied to beat the Tampa Bay Lightning.
So the Wild enters tonight’s play in 10th, four back of the Canucks and Flames, three back of the 8th-place Sharks and one back of the Kings.
“It’s tough because you lose one game in three weeks in regulation and it feels like you’ve lost probably four or five in a row,” coach Mike Yeo said. “But that’s part of the challenge, that’s part of the journey of getting there. We’ve had some experience of going through things like this. I know we did last year, and we understand you have to be able to get right back on the horse.”
Last night’s bad outcomes magnify Wednesday’s game against the Flames, but goalie Devan Dubnyk said the Wild can’t go into these games thinking every one’s a must-win.
“We’ve done a really good job of just approaching each game as its own single challenge,” Dubnyk said. “Last night’s loss was very disappointing and yeah you look at the standings and think, ‘That’s a blow,’ but there’s a lot of points left to be had. The simple fact is if we keep winning games, we’re going to be in the playoffs.
“If we keep playing the way we have and keep winning hockey games, we’ll be where we need to be at the end of the year. We can’t look at the game last night and [Wednesday] and approach them like, ‘Oh my God, we can’t lose this game.’ That’s not a way to be successful.”
Zach Parise concurred, saying yesterday is “going to happen, but when it does, it’s a crummy feeling.”
But the Wild, he said, can’t now feel like all the good it has done the past three weeks went down the drain, saying, “we’re back in the mix when for awhile it was looking really thin.” He said every game is important the rest of the way, not just when it plays teams it’s chasing like Calgary, but when it goes to play Edmonton on Friday.
“They’re all really important for us,” Parise said.
Thomas Vanek missed today’s practice due to a lower-body thing he has been dealing with for some time. Yeo said he’s expecting Vanek to play, although the Wild may recall a forward if Vanek can’t play or if Yeo just wanted to change the lineup.
The fourth line of Stephane Veilleux-Erik Haula-Kyle Brodziak was on for the winning goal against the Canucks and Yeo said, “The idea behind a checking line is to make sure you don’t get scored on.” Yeo did say they have been doing good things though and have been good on the Wild’s 26 for 26 penalty kill since the All-Star break.
The Wild will likely break up the Parise-Mikko Koivu-Jason Pominville line against the Flames because if the Wild doesn’t spread the wealth, with last change, Flames coach Bob Hartley can just continually throw out top-pair, Norris Trophy candidates Mark Giordano and T.J. Brodie against that line.
“It’s something we’re thinking about. But nothing concrete yet,” Yeo said.
In practice, Parise and Mikael Granlund were on a line together with Jordan Schroeder on the right. My guess is Schroeder was just a placeholder for Vanek.
That line was together in the Wild’s win at Calgary a few weeks ago, although the always-honest Parise said, “We scored, but we didn’t get a lot of offensive-zone time and we were pretty careless with the puck if I remember right. We happened to score on a turnover and that’s pretty much all we did.”
But after last night’s lack of chances and the need to get the three best offensive players away from Giordano and Brodie, he understands why the coaches are considering breaking up the three vets.
Nino Niederreiter was back on a line with Mikko Koivu and Jason Pominville like last Tuesday’s game in Winnipeg. As I think I mentioned on yesterday morning’s blog, it seems like every time Niederreiter is moved into a top-6 role, he’s not nearly as effective and changes his game.
Yeo said in Vancouver that Niederreiter is a lot more comfortable in his skin playing with guys like Charlie Coyle and Schroeder because he doesn’t always defer to the vets. Niederreiter actually said the same thing to me the first game after the break in Edmonton.
So Yeo plans to meet with Niederreiter in the morning and implore him not to change his game. Be strong on the puck, be good along the wall and go to the net like he did on his two goals in Vancouver.
The Parise-Koivu-Pominville line had a good amount of offensive-zone time in Vancouver but not a lot of scoring chances. He said it was tough playing against Vancouver because the Canucks do a good job collapsing down low or doing those swarms in the corner. He said playing against Vancouver without its two top D and only having 17 shots before that last-minute flurry, “That’s not very good and that’s part of why they’re line changing.”
The Flames are the best third-period team in the league. They have rallied 10 times in the third period for wins, a team record and two off the NHL record.
“They play a good game and they don’t break,” Yeo said. “They’re disciplined in their game. They’re a well-conditioned team. They’re a pressure team and quite often it leads to a lot of frustration for the opposition and the opposition may change their game a little bit. We saw it last game [against Boston], they can be down 3-nothing and they’re just going to keep on coming. They’re a young motivated group, so it will be a good test.”
Last month, the Wild held the Flames off in the third from rallying in large part to Dubnyk’s great goaltending.
As I said, I’d expect a callup. It may be somebody like Brett Sutter though (the Wild had seven hits yesterday and the fourth line was on for the winning goal) instead of rookie Tyler Graovac.
“These games are pretty rich right now,” Yeo said when I asked about maybe recalling Graovac. “That’s not to say he’s not an option, but to throw somebody in without a lot of experience playing this time of year can be a tough thing for somebody, too.” So Yeo said they’re talking about Graovac, somebody else or maybe going with the status quo. If there’s a change, I don’t see it being Stu Bickel though.
Wild wants a player who can play somewhat of a regular shift.
Think about this:
At one point tonight, the Wild was up 1-0 while the Winnipeg Jets were trailing the Edmonton Oilers and the Calgary Flames were down 3-zip to the Boston Bruins.
Then, everything spun the other direction.
At the end of the night, the Jets rallied for a shootout win, the Flames rallied for a last-second overtime win and the Wild blew that one-goal lead and was unable to tie a game in a frantic final 30 seconds with its net empty before losing 3-2 to the Vancouver Canucks. To make matters worse, the Los Angeles Kings rallied to beat the Tampa Bay Lightning.
So, in total, that means, the Wild, which at one point today could have moved into the eighth spot if it beat Vancouver and the Flames lost in regulation, fell four points behind the Canucks and Flames, three behind the now-8th-place San Jose Sharks and into 10th in the West – one point behind the Kings.
For three weeks, almost everything went the Wild's play, both with its outcomes and in the standings. Tonight, not so much. Literally one minute after Calgary won in OT (TJ Brodie backhanded a puck from the right corner off the top of the net, then Rask and in with 2 seconds left for a fluke goal), the Wild fell behind 2-1 93 seconds into the third. Since 2011, Boston is 91-1-2 when it has a 3-goal lead. Yeah, doesn't seem like tonight was meant to be for the Wild.
The Wild, which hadn't lost in regulation since Jan. 19, was unable to extend its point streak to a franchise-record 11 games after 26-year-old defenseman Alex Biega, who was given the all-alone twirl treatment by his teammates comically to start warmups, scored what turned out to be the winning goal with 8:06 left.
Jordan Schroeder, for the second time in the game, set up a second Nino Niederreiter goal with 6:25 left to cut the deficit to 3-2, but the Wild couldn’t bury one in the final seconds with an extra attacker on. Eddie Lack denied Jason Pominville a couple times and Matt Dumba missed the net from point-blank range.
Coach Mike Yeo said he was shocked the Wild didn’t tie it because the Wild did everything right in terms of getting pucks and bodies to the net, but sloppy play previously in the game doomed the Wild.
During the Wild’s 10-1-2 stretch, Minnesota scored first in all the victories, so it bode well when Niederreiter scored for the game’s first goal 8:55 into the first.
Jason Zucker’s injury has wreaked havoc on the Wild’s offense and speed up front, but Schroeder, a former Canucks first-round pick, has supplied offense and speed up from the farm since Zucker’s injury.
A week after scoring his first goal as a Wild against Vancouver and a few days after scoring against Carolina, Schroeder set up Niederreiter on a great play coming off the bench. He skated in front of defenseman Jonas Brodin to take a breakout pass, flew down the right-wing boards with speed and centered for a driving Niederreiter.
But the Wild wasn’t sharp from there. The Wild lost pucks off sticks, passed pucks into skates and overskated pucks. It was alarming the way the Wild routinely coughed pucks up with reckless passes high in the offensive zone.
“They were defending hard and quickly, but we were not strong enough on the puck in the offensive zone,” coach Mike Yeo said. “I think in a lot of ways that was the place we needed to win that game tonight and we didn’t do enough.”
The Wild also began overpassing constantly, especially the Thomas Vanek-Mikael Granlund-Justin Fontaine line.
“We didn’t play the game we knew we should play,” Niederreiter said. “We had too many turnovers. Sometimes we tried to be too cute. We had to get more shots to the net and that’s exactly what cost us the game at the end.”
Instead of taking advantage of a team without top-2 defensemen Alex Edler and Chris Tanev by getting pucks deep against a blue line that should have been exposable, the Wild kept trying to make plays up top and routinely turned pucks over.
The Canucks capitalized several times in the second half of the first period by countering with speed and spending lots of time in the offensive zone.
The sloppiness cost Minnesota in the first minute of the second period. Poor management with the puck, then a bad pinch by Ryan Suter led to the Sedin Twins breaking out on a 2-on-1 against Brodin and scoring on a rebound.
The Wild went the first seven minutes in the period without a shot, couldn’t take advantage of a power play. Until late, the Zach Parise-Mikko Koivu-Pominville line didn’t generate much.
“The puck was bouncing a lot, but we didn’t do anything to help ourselves out or be creative,” Parise said of the team. “Everything was on the wall. Not a lot of creativity in our game. …
“I felt the ice was pretty bad. It was bouncy. It was tough to get through the neutral zone. Just every time you felt like you had [the puck], it was rolling on the side. I don’t know if they were feeling the same thing, but it was one of those games where you couldn’t get anything clean, it felt like.”
Pominville also said, “It was a weird game. They play tight. Not a lot of room. A lot of chipping pucks in and not that many rush opportunities. You had to grind it out and try to stay patient and obviously they got the better hand.”
Yeo said he knew it would be a tight-checking game and without Edler and Tanev, he knew the Canucks would do a good job and have a mentality to protect the inexperience D and play a strong game in front of them.
They defended really well all night.
“They were playing tight through the neutral zone,” Yeo said. “There weren’t a lot of clean entries,” although Yeo felt the Wild retrieved pucks well but “didn’t generate anything whatsoever after that.”
As I called it on Twitter, a ton of one-and-outs.
On this being such a colossally bad night for the Wild in the standings, Yeo said, “There’s a lot of hockey left,” adding if a few weeks ago you said the Wild would take two out of three on the Canucks – a team it’s chasing – in eight days, the Wild would have been happy with that.
“There’s still a lot of season left,” Yeo said, although he said there were some breakdowns on each of the goals against that much be corrected by Wednesday.
That’s it for me. Devan Dubnyk wasn’t happy with the winning goal, feeling he was interfered with by Alex Burrows and then taunted by the agitator right after. You can read those quotes in the gamer. Hard call there for the officials on the contact and eight days ago in Vancouver, Dubnyk got the benefit of a questionable incidental contact call that went against Vancouver and wiped out a big Canucks goal.
The problem on this shift was the play in front of Dubnyk as the fourth line and defensemen Marco Scandella and Jared Spurgeon got trapped in the zone for more than a minute and got dead-legged. As I said to my colleague next to me 10 seconds before the goal, “This will be a goal or a penalty.”
Yeo subtly mentioned after that the Wild deserved more than the one power play that it got. And there was undoubtedly blatant obstruction let go and a slash on a Vanek breakaway.
But at the end of the day, the Canucks played better tonight. The Wild was sloppy and it ultimately was doomed by poor puck management and constant turnovers at both blue lines. And the Wild was credited with only seven hits!
But as Yeo said, there’s a lot of season left.
“That’s going to happen,” Parise said of the bad night in the standings. “We’re not going to win every game the rest of the season and the other teams aren’t going to lose every game. It’s unfortunate, but that’s the way it’s going to be.”
That’s it for me. Check out the game notebook as well because I wrote a little on the price of trades right now and one of the things that may inhibit the Wild’s ability to do something substantial.
Talk to you after practice Tuesday in Calgary.
Morning from beautiful, sunny Vancouver. The Wild, 10-1-2 in its past 13, has beaten the Canucks twice in the past eight days and is 6-1 against Vancouver in seven meetings since March 10, 2013, including three straight wins in Vancouver.
Alex Edler is out for Vancouver. Banged-up Chris Tanev is playing and will be on top pair with Dan Hamhuis. Luca Sbisa moves to the left side and Yannick Weber comes back in for an all-Swiss pair.
Eddie Lack starting because Ryan Miller stinks vs. the Wild.
Same Wild lineup tonight. Coach Mike Yeo thoughts about playing Stu Bickel up front, although it doesn't like for long. That may sound outlandish to some, but after the Canucks ran around in St. Paul last week and injured Jason Zucker, Ryan Carter and took a run at Zach Parise, it was something Yeo is at least considered.
In the end, he decided why change a lineup that is 8-0-1 since the All-Star break and is a point from establishing a new franchise-record point streak of 11 games (8-0-2 right now)? Defenseman Matt Dumba has struggled the past two games, but the Wild is 22-8-1 with him in the lineup and Yeo typically likes Bickel up front more than on the back end. And up front, Stephane Veilleux was good the other night on the Wild's penalty kill, which is 25 for 25 since the All-Star break, so why take him out when Veilleux is needed in a PK role with Zucker, Carter and Matt Cooke hurt?
Yeo said he felt the Wild needed four lines that could play regular shifts tonight, and the three guys that have been playing on the fourth line -- Veilleux, Erik Haula and Kyle Brodziak -- have been a huge part of Minnesota's penalty kill "and quite frankly, nobody deserves to come out."
"Listen, we've got to be ready for them to play a physical game again," Yeo said. "What I'd really like to see is us to combat that with our power play the way we did [with two power-play goals last Monday]. I thought that was instrumental in us getting that win. If they want to run around, then hopefully we can combat that with other ways as far as execution and creating. But we've got to be ready to compete in our own way. We have to be ready to finish checks, to take hits to make plays and we have to make sure that we're strong in our one-on-one battles and if we do that, then we like our squad."
Jordan Schroeder, a Canucks first-round pick who scored his first goal with the Wild at home against Vancouver, makes his first trip back.
"It's exciting. This is where my pro career started. It's fun to be back here, but it's just another game that we have to win," Schroeder said.
I will be on Fox Sports North tonight during the pregame show and first intermission.
Yesterday on my plane ride out here, I put together a strength of schedule chart for the Wild and all the teams it's contending for a playoff spot with. The category, "Games vs. current playoff teams," is exactly that. If the top-8 in the West or East change in the coming days, that number listed for each team will be inaccurate afterward.
San Jose is in danger of falling out of the top 3 in the Pacific (top 3 in each division is essentially 1 through 6 and playoff locks), so suddenly the Sharks, Canucks, Flames and Kings are all jockeying with each other.
Just root for no 3-point games the rest of the way when these teams play. As I said to somebody the other night, just because the Wild didn't move into the top-8 didn't make Calgary beating Vancouver a bad thing at all. What it did was kept Vancouver closer to the pack that the Wild is contending against.
Tonight, the Wild will move into the top-8 tonight if it beats Vancouver in regulation AND Calgary loses to Boston in regulation. If that happens, the Wild would be tied in points (65) with Vancouver and Calgary but get into the top-8 because the Flames have played one more game.
The Jets are five up on the Wild for the first wildcard spot. They have still played three more games than Minnesota, so the Wild's still in a good spot if it keeps winning. But Winnipeg gets lowly Edmonton at home tonight.
I included regulation/overtime wins in the chart because that is the first tiebreaker after 82 games.
San Jose (66 points, 2nd in Pacific)
Games left: 24
Games vs. current playoff team: 13
Regulation/overtime wins: 27
Note: Floundering of late. 5 of final 6 games vs. Colorado, Arizona, Dallas and Edmonton
Vancouver (65 points, 3rd in Pacific)
Games left: 27
Games vs. current playoff team: 12
Regulation/overtime wins: 29
Note: Pretty much a .500 team lately and their defense is starting to get beat up. Last 2 games vs. Arizona and Edmonton at home.
Winnipeg (68 points, 1st wildcard spot)
Games left: 24
Games vs. current playoff team: 15
Regulation/overtime wins: 24
Note: Arguably the easiest schedule the rest of the way, but they still have four games against St. Louis.
Calgary (65 points, 2nd wildcard spot)
Games left: 26
Games vs. current playoff team: 11
Regulation/overtime wins: 28
Note: Pretty easy schedule and have a five-game homestand in the middle of the next month, including four current non-playoff teams.
Wild (63 points, 9th)
Games left: 27
Games vs. current playoff team: 17
Regulation/overtime wins: 26
Note: The Wild’s final 6 games and 8 of last 9 are against playoff teams, including a road trip to Chicago, Nashville and St. Louis. The Wild has lacked success in each of those cities, however, if those teams are locks with position just prior to the playoffs, could the Wild be facing teams in do-not-get-hurt-mode? Look for the Wild to try to add a scoring forward and defenseman before the March 2 trade deadline
Los Angeles (62 points, 10th)
Games left: 27
Games vs. current playoff team: 17
Regulation/overtime wins: 24
Note: Actively looking for a defenseman to replace suspended Slava Voynov. Lots of road games left. Despite the fact the Kings were so good on the road in last year’s playoffs, they’ve been fairly awful this year.
Dallas (60 points, 11th)
Games left: 26
Games vs. current playoff team: 19
Regulation/overtime wins: 24
Note: Tyler Seguin is out with a knee injury.
Colorado (57 points, 12th)
Games left: 26
Games vs. current playoff team: 15
Regulation/overtime wins: 16
Note: Avs are tied for the fourth-fewest ROW’s in the NHL. Only 32 of its 57 points have come via regulation/overtime wins.
It was so unexpected, it was almost a little hard to believe. The handful of spectators at Sunday morning's optional Wild practice kept staring at the guy with the 2 on the back of his helmet, making sure we really were seeing Keith Ballard on the ice at Xcel Energy Center.
The defenseman has been out since he was crushed into the boards Dec. 9 in a victory over the New York Islanders, sustaining a concussion and facial fractures. He wasn't planning to skate Sunday. But Ballard has been taking part in off-ice team activities and felt good when he came to the arena Sunday morning, as the Wild got ready for its road trip to Vancouver, Calgary and Edmonton. Knowing it would be a light practice, he asked athletic therapist Don Fuller if he could go on the ice.
Fuller cleared it with team doctors, and Ballard put on his hockey equipment for the first time in two months. It was a simple workout, just skating, doing non-contact drills and making and receiving passes. But it was a significant step for Ballard, even though he isn't sure where it will lead.
"It was fun to be out there,'' said Ballard, who has missed 29 games. "I'm not looking too far ahead or reading too far into it. It was one skate. For me, it was just fun to get out on the ice for a little bit.
"We'll see how I feel today and how I feel going forward. This past week has been encouraging, just being able to do something.''
Ballard has been doing light workouts for about a week. He wasn't sure how long he would last Sunday, but he stayed on the ice for most of the practice and skated for about 35 minutes.
Until last week, he had been largely inactive other than running errands and doing home and family chores. Ballard said he knew things were improving when he felt energetic last week; until that point, he typically grew tired and sluggish in the afternoons and wanted to sleep. After the practice--and for the next few days--he will be monitoring how he feels, watching for symptoms such as headaches and fatigue.
Ballard doesn't yet know whether he will return to hockey at all, let alone this season. Coach Mike Yeo said it was good to see a well-liked, well-respected player back on the ice, even if there were only 10 other players and two goalies going through a short and simple practice.
So now the Wild go west again, with a chance to finally move back into the top eight in the Western Conference standings. Yeo said goalie Devan Dubnyk will start at Vancouver, running his streak to 14 games.
A few other notes from Sunday:
--Yeo liked Justin Fontaine's game Saturday, when he got two assists in the Wild's 6-3 victory over Carolina. He thought Fontaine worked well with linemates Mikael Granlund and Thomas Vanek, playing to his personal strengths.
"I thought he had a strong game,'' Yeo said. "It's not an easy assignment when you get moved up and have an opportunity to play with guys like that. First off, you want to take advantage of the opportunity and stay in that kind of role, so you start thinking about points and you start thinking about making plays. And that’s good; you have to be aggressive.
"But at the same time, you have to make sure you're playing your own game. You can't just be trying to get the puck to (linemates) and force plays to them. I thought he did a good job of that. I thought he showed a lot of confidence and composure with those guys. He thinks the game at a high level, which is something very important.''
Yeo said when Jordan Schroeder was playing with Granlund and Vanek, he was forcing things. That affected his speed, negating one of his primary assets. When Schroeder was teamed with Charlie Coyle and Nino Niederreiter, Yeo said, he relaxed and began relying again on what he does well.
"He seems to have some comfort with those guys and some confidence that he can just go play his game,'' Yeo said of Schroeder. "I think we've seen that the last couple games that line has played together. Hopefully that can continue.''
--Yeo lauded the Wild's penalty kill, which has been a perfect 25-for-25 in its past nine games. The Wild has been highly disciplined lately, defending aggressively without taking careless or ill-advised penalties. When the penalty kill is called upon, it has been sharply focused, starting with Dubnyk and extending to a surrounding cast that takes pride in its work.
"They deserve a lot of credit,'' Yeo said. "(Dubnyk) deserves an awful lot of credit. We have the confidence we can be a little bit more aggressive up ice and he can help with our clears; also, we can be a little bit more aggressive in the zone and know that he's going to be back there to make the saves when there is a breakdown. So it's been a good joint effort.''
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