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Why The Golden Knights Will Defeat The Sharks

**Southern Nevada Sports Hall of Famer, Steve Carp’s twice-weekly column publishes every Wednesday and Sunday during the Golden Knights season.** 

Let’s just cut to the chase — the Golden Knights will win their first-round Stanley Cup Playoffs series against the San Jose Sharks.

Why? That takes a little explanation, though most of you know the edges that go to Gerard Gallant’s team.

For starters, the Knights have the superior goaltending. Marc-Andre Fleury is better than either Martin Jones or Aaron Dell.

While both teams boast balance among their four lines, I believe Vegas has a little more depth and talent spread out across its four lines than San Jose.

The Knights can win on the road. They’ve played well at SAP Center in the past and no matter what clever phrases the Sharks’ marketing people come up with to get the San Jose crowd going, it’s not going to throw Vegas off its game.

With all that said, it’s not going to be an easy series. The Sharks are a good team too. They’re getting defenseman Erik Karlsson back at the right time and he’ll be a force to deal with, especially when San Jose goes on the power play.

Joe Pavelski’s going to play and he’s always been tough to contain for the Knights. And I would fully expect Timo Meier to play, bad wrist and all.

Gallant said Monday the team is as healthy as it has been all year and if you take him at his word, the Knights are going to have the flexibility to move people in and out of the lineup. Whether it’s Ryan Carpenter, Tomas Nosek or Will Carrier filling in those left-wing spots on the third and fourth lines to play with Cody Eakin and Alex Tuch or with Pierre-Edouard Bellemare and Ryan Reaves, there’s going to be lots of maneuverability for Gallant during the series. And I haven’t even brought up Brandon Pirri or Valentin Zykov, though it’s unlikely they’ll play unless a rash of injuries suddenly materializes.

But if you’re looking for three keys to the series aside from the ones I previously mentioned, here they are:

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First, can the Sharks contain William Karlsson? Wild Bill has scored 10 goals and has eight assists in 14 games against San Jose in his two years with the Knights, including the postseason. He appears to be in Jones’ head, though good luck to getting anyone to admit to it. The Sharks to date still haven’t been able to consistently take away Karlsson’s time and space. And with Reilly Smith and Jonathan Marchessault able to get him the puck, Karlsson remains a true nemesis for San Jose.

I seem to be in the right place at the right time. They seem to play me the same way. I don’t think they put any particular focus on me. -Karlsson

Maybe it’s time Peter DeBoer did change it up and try and watch Karlsson a little closer. They did manage to keep him pointless in Games 4 and 5 in last year conference semifinals so maybe they’ll figure it out.

The second key is about containment the other way. The Knights have their own demons to deal with, that being keeping Logan Couture and Tomas Hertl in check. The duo has been a constant pain for Vegas and last year in the playoffs they combined for five goals and 12 points.

Hertl’s a guy who’s big and fast and just makes plays. Couture’s just a slippery guy. he makes a lot of plays all around the ice. It’s all about how we contain them and as defensemen not let them get position to where they can use their body to shield pucks away from us. We keep those guys off the scoreboard, we have a much better chance of winning the series. –Nate Schmidt

The third variable in all this is Alex Tuch. The second-year winger will be on the third line with Eakin and whoever Gallant opts to put on the left side. He learned a lot from his first playoff experience a year ago and you can expect him to be much more comfortable in this high-intensity setting.

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Golden Knights Defensive Style Nullifies Sharks Potent Blueliners

The Golden Knights used the same strategy against Drew Doughty and the Kings. (Photo Credit: SinBin.vegas Photographer Brandon Andreasen)

One of the most dangerous aspects of the San Jose Sharks is their depth of defensemen with offensive abilities. Whether it’s the team leader in points in Brent Burns, or one of the league’s best puck movers in Erik Karlsson, or even the less known players like Brendan Dillon or Justin Braun, the Sharks aren’t lacking offensive production from their defensemen.

This was a major point of emphasis for the Golden Knights against the Sharks a year ago when the two met in the playoffs and will be once again this year. Vegas deploys a somewhat risky strategy in defending the Sharks glut of firepower from their defensemen, something that has not gone unnoticed by the San Jose bench boss.

If they are going to go stand up beside our defensemen up high then the forwards down low are going to have to take advantage of that space. They’ve been consistent with that against us whenever we’ve played them, last year and this year. So we know that’s probably what we are going to get. -Pete DeBoer, Sharks Head Coach

What he’s talking about is how the Golden Knights forwards defend against the Sharks when San Jose has the puck in the Vegas zone. Gallant has instructed his forwards to play as close to the defenseman standing near the blue line as possible to take away time and space and also eliminate shooting lanes.

They play our defensemen high and it ends up with a lot of low play there where you have to take the puck to the net. That’s part of the game when you play them. DeBoer on 3/30 following OT win over VGK

Last year in the playoffs, the Sharks defensemen did not score a single goal at even strength and they managed only a total of 35 shots on goal. The Golden Knights blocked 58 shots from Sharks defensemen in the series.

Over the course of the six playoff games, and even more so in the four games this regular season, the Golden Knights have put an emphasis on not allowing shots from the point. That means taking away Brent Burns’ massive shot, eliminating Erik Karlsson’s shot and passing ability, and limiting every other defenseman’s shot lanes.

You have to get on them quickly. If you give them too much time, they’ll make plays and they’ll create more open ice from that. You have to limit the time and space. That’s pretty much the best answer I can give you. They’re talented players and they’re very creative with the puck. The more opportunities you give them, they’ll make you pay.  -Reilly Smith

The other benefit of playing defenseman high at the blue line is in creating turnovers. Any slight bobble of a pass at the Sharks offensive blue line could mean a Golden Knight taking the puck and starting a break the other way. Jonathan Marchessault, Reilly Smith, Alex Tuch, Mark Stone, Max Pacioretty, and others will be primary pieces in taking away shots from the point.

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Ryan Reaves Is Ready For The Playoffs; Where He Thinks His Game Plays Best

(Photo Credit: SinBin.vegas Photographer Brandon Andreasen)

Ryan Reaves is well aware of the line. The line that he doesn’t cross often. Sure we just watched him serve a goofy 10-minute jousting misconduct with Joe Thornton but overall as a Golden Knight he’s been disciplined. This season Reaves played the second most games (80) in his career and had the second least penalty minutes (74). And, of those 74 minutes, just 24 came on minor penalties, meaning Reaves is rarely the reason for an opposing power play. But, can he amp up the physicality in the playoffs and continue to stay out of the sin bin?

I know how to do that. That’s a big reason why I’m still in this league. I play physical but I know how to stay within the limits of the game and not take penalties and hurt the team. Otherwise, I think I’d be out of the league by now. -Ryan Reaves

In the postseason, checking gets questionably cleaner but definitely more impactful. Reaves can become more valuable in the postseason by his forward pressure. If #75 can stay clean and remain out of the box, it’ll allow more offensively skilled teammates the ability to clean up his line’s forechecking crumbs.

I think it’s a little of both. Penalties aren’t called as much but at the same time penalties are magnified. You need to know when to pick your spots and make those clean hits. The ones that are maybe a little bit from behind you don’t go for those ones. Those might be called for boarding. One penalty can change the momentum of the series really quickly. -Reaves

Another way Reaves can impact a series is his continuous wearing down of opponents. In a long series his vicious body checks, out-muscling players, and bruising puck battles along the boards will eventually start to add up.

It’s definitely not going to slow down. This is exactly what I live for. This is the type of game I live for. These physical games that you play a team over and over and those physical games can wear on a team. You keep running their d-men, well they’re going to get sore eventually. I expect it to amp up if anything. -Reaves

In 46 career postseason games, Reaves has accrued only 41 PIMs. Last year, Reaves’ PIM number ballooned in the playoffs as he spent 18 minutes off the ice. However, 10 of them came from a misconduct call with less than a minute left in a Cup Final game the Golden Knights trailed by 4.

It’s tough to stay in the league and it’s tough to stay in the lineup, especially in the playoffs if you’re taking a bunch of penalties. Especially, when you’re not a top goal scorer. -Reaves

While it’s a cute, made for TV type storyline, Reaves will not be circling the ice searching for Brent Burns or Evander Kane’s blood. Nor is he told to protect his team from a physical guy like Michael Haley, should he play. No, Reaves is prepared to effectively check any opponent off the puck, create turnovers and hopefully score. He is told to play his game.

And in Reaves’ mind, his game is made for the postseason.

Brent Burns: The Golden Knights Secret Weapon

(Photo Credit: SinBin.vegas Photographer Brandon Andreasen)

Brent Burns is an elite offensive defenseman, arguably one of the best in the entire NHL. He’s the 2016-17 Norris Trophy winner, he’s a six-time All Star, and he’s tallied at least 60 points five different seasons in the NHL. He’s also the point leader for the Sharks heading into the playoffs, the only defenseman with such distinction. All of these accolades (and the beard) tend to leave the hockey world enamored with the 6’5″ 230-pound goliath of a defenseman.

However, when you actually watch Brent Burns play, it’s not all rosy, and when you watch him play against the Golden Knights, it’s nothing short of dreadful.

There’s only one way to illustrate what I’m talking about because most of the issues come when Burns is away from the puck and that’s through video. When he has the puck, in any of the three zones, he’s usually good with it. He has a strong stick, he normally makes good decisions with the puck, and he’s an elite skater for his size when he’s skating forward.

But, when you watch what he does away from the puck, or what happens when he has to retreat into his own zone, or his positioning when the puck is turned over, you’ll start to see why he’s a liability against a team like Vegas.

Let’s start with a few videos, the tamer ones first.

In all three cases, the Golden Knights fired stretch passes directly aimed at Burns. Each time the Golden Knights ended up on the puck and they created a chance out of each of them. None of these resulted in goals, but that doesn’t mean they didn’t affect the game.

Because Burns is so offensively focused, he’s often caught too far up in the neutral zone and Vegas seems to seek it out. This is a key to how the Golden Knights like to play, and Burns plays right into it. Vegas is at its best when they are playing quickly and when they transition through the neutral zone with one pass. In all three plays shown, Burns aids that process.

Now let’s move on to another major issue Burns has when he plays against Vegas, getting caught on the wrong side of the puck. As a defenseman, it’s crucial that when a puck is turned over that you are closer to your goal than the puck is. Otherwise, it leads to odd-man rushes and/or forwards getting caught playing as defensemen. Here are two such instances, both from the same game, both that lead to Golden Knights goals.

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Fourth Line Could Be Key For Both Teams In First Round

**Southern Nevada Sports Hall of Famer, Steve Carp’s twice-weekly column publishes every Wednesday and Sunday during the Golden Knights season.** 

Whenever you attempt to analyze any playoff series in any sport, you’re going to be looking for certain intangibles, the little things that could make the difference between winning and losing.

As the Golden Knights and San Jose Sharks prepare to renew acquaintances in the postseason beginning Wednesday at the SAP Center, this time in the opening round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, there’s a couple of words to ponder:

One is “depth.”

The other is “balance.”

Both teams have sufficient quantities of each. The Sharks have managed to compete without Erik Karlsson, their all-star defenseman, for a couple of stretches this season. But he’s back and his presence will undoubtedly be felt.

(Photo Credit: SinBin.vegas Photographer Brandon Andreasen)

San Jose also has the ability to hurt you with all four of its lines. And with that in mind, we are examining the bottom-six depth of both teams’ forwards and the fourth line in particular.

Interestingly, there are a few similarities. The Knights have used different wingers on the left side to work with center Pierre-Edouard Bellemare and right wing Ryan Reaves. And whether it has been Ryan Carpenter, William Carrier or Tomas Nosek, the Vegas fourth line hardly misses a beat.

I think everyone’s comfortable with each other. We talk on the ice and on the bench and everyone is on the same page. -Bellemare

The Sharks have also used different people on their fourth line. According to our good friend Sheng Peng who covers the Sharks for FearTheFin.com, Peter DeBoer has used a mix of Barclay Goodrow, Melker Karlsson, Micheal Haley and have also used Joonas Donskoi, Lukas Radil and Dylan Gambrell though it’s doubtful the last two will see action. If Timo Meier’s injured left wrist has improved enough for him to play, he’s likely to be in the mix as well.

Like Gerard Gallant, DeBoer is blessed with some options for his fourth line. For Gallant, he’ll let the players decide who plays.

“‘ve always said that — the players determine who plays, not the coach. Whoever is playing the best will be in the lineup. -Gallant

That’s not going to be as easy as it sounds. Carpenter has played very well. Same for Nosek. Carrier has been his usual self since he came back a couple of weeks ago, throwing his body around and using his speed to help on the forecheck.

We have a great group of guys. Nobody’s going to complain about who plays and who doesn’t. It’s all about winning. -Carpenter.

Of course, Reaves is in the spotlight. When the two teams met on March 30 at SAP Center, he was right in the middle of everything. He will be Public Enemy No. 1 with the Sharks’ fans. But if you think he’s going to be dropping the gloves every game, guess again.

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Pacioretty: “All Bets Are Off In The Playoffs”

(Photo Credit: SinBin.vegas Photographer Brandon Andreasen)

From 2012-2014, the Montreal Canadiens and Boston Bruins played eight times in the regular season. Max Pacioretty’s Canadiens went 6-2-0 as Montreal clearly had the edge on Boston for two seasons and it carried over into the postseason. In 2014 the Habs met the Bruins in the second round of the playoffs and continued their control over Boston winning the series in seven.

It’s all about momentum. It’s about players being at their best at the right time. It’s about bounces and the team sticking together. -Max Pacioretty

That’s one example of Pacioretty being on team that had gotten the better of their playoff opponent, like his current team’s success over the San Jose Sharks.

Try and predict every playoff series and you’ll be amazed at how many you get wrong. What’s happened in the past has nothing to do with the future. -Pacioretty

Pacioretty has played in seven playoff series over his 11-year career. It’s not as many as he’d like but the veteran has seen enough to understand the intensity on the second season.

Henrik Lundqvist use to skip playing in the Bell Centre against us because he thought there were ghosts in there that had his number. And then we played them in the playoffs and he stood on his head in the Bell Centre and completely stole the series. He was dominant and totally took over the series. All bets are off in the playoffs. -Pacioretty

The 30-year-old scoring winger averages 0.5 points per game and 4.5 shots per game in the postseason. Vegas will need him to do more than that over the next month or two. There’s no doubt that come next week Pacioretty and his teammates will bring the intensity they’ve been lacking for the past couple of weeks.

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Confidence Not An Issue For Vegas Against San Jose

(Photo Credit: SinBin.vegas Photographer Brandon Andreasen)

We’ve all seen it over the past two seasons, the Golden Knights have the San Jose Sharks number. In their 14 matchups, Vegas is 9-2-3 against San Jose in the regular season and postseason combined. I know the team won’t come out and say it but I will, the Golden Knights own the Sharks. Both teams know it, both fanbases know it.

One guy that doesn’t care about anything from the past is Golden Knights coach Gerard Gallant.

To be totally honest with you, it doesn’t matter what we’ve done against them the last year and a half. It’s going to be a brand new series. It’s going to be two real good teams battling for a chance to move on in the playoffs. I don’t care. They’re a really talented hockey team and they’re better than they were last year. I think we’re better than we were last year. It should be a great series and the past means nothing to us. -Gallant

Gallant is very good at downplaying but he’s well aware of the advantage his team has over San Jose. He correctly rattled off his team’s record against the Sharks in Tuesday’s press conference. The players are well aware of their success against San Jose too. But will Vegas’ confidence get in the way? And how will the Golden Knights keep from being overconfident heading into their first round series against San Jose.

We are hoping to use that to our advantage and be confident against them. We believe we can dominate them. Go into their building and play well like we’ve proven that we can do. Historically, it’s a tough place to play but I think we’ve done a good job in that building. We’ve kind of gotten them off their game and getting into our game quickly. We’re going to try and stay confident and believe in ourselves. -Jon Merrill

Confidence aside Merrill isn’t concerned what’s going on in the Sharks locker room. The focus is all about his team, and his locker room.

We worry about ourselves. We focus on what we need to do. We’re a tight group and our success is going to come from here. -Merrill

Shea Theodore has turned into a bonafide top-four defenseman this season, and not just his skills on the ice. Theodore transitioned from a young prospect and becoming a well-paid veteran. He recognizes his team’s success and isn’t afraid to boast about it.

The games that we’ve played against them they’ve been intense, they’ve been physical. They’re a good team but when we play our style, I think we’re getting into their heads. We got Reavo and he does a pretty good job running around and chirping guys… It definitely gets us going. -Shea Theodore

Theodore wasn’t being cocky or trying to send bulletin board material for San Jose. The Sharks don’t need that, they have enough already.

Yeah, things change. It’ll be something we’ll feel and see how it goes. -Theodore

Bottom line, Vegas has gotten the better of San Jose over two seasons and they have the opportunity to continue their dominance in the first round. The question is, can San Jose do anything to stop it?

Time For Flower To Bloom

**Southern Nevada Sports Hall of Famer, Steve Carp’s twice-weekly column publishes every Wednesday and Sunday during the Golden Knights season.** 

It was a simple transaction announcement Tuesday afternoon — Maxime Lagace was being returned to the AHL Chicago Wolves.

But the news behind the news was huge. It meant Marc-Andre Fleury was returning to active duty for the Golden Knights. And the timing couldn’t have been better.

Or more critical.

We last saw Fleury in goal back on March 15 in a 2-1 win over the Dallas Stars in Texas. Since then, he had been given time off, reportedly having sustained a lower-body injury. His wife Veronique was also giving birth to the family’s third child, this time, a boy. And it didn’t hurt for Fleury to reboot things mentally as well as heal up physically.

No doubt the time off had to have done him a lot of good. And the reality was the Golden Knights weren’t catching Calgary and winning the Pacific Division. So the decision to shut Fleury down was a wise one.

(Photo Credit: SinBin.vegas Photographer Brandon Andreasen)

He has had a wonderful season, arguably one of his best of his NHL career. In 59 games, he has a 35-19-5 record, eight shutouts, a 2.46 goals-against average and a .914 save percentage. He probably won’t win the Vezina Trophy, which goes to the NHL’s top goalie, but he had played himself into the conversation over the first half of the year.

Don’t forget, he’s no kid anymore. The guy is 34 years old, but given the high standard of his play, Fleury remains the most critical piece of the Knights’ puzzle going forward into the postseason next week.

He will be expected to put the team on his back and take them as far as he can. That was the case last year as Fleury was brilliant through the first three rounds of the playoffs and he played well in the Stanley Cup Final too.

He’ll get some playoff preseason work in Thursday against Arizona in the regular-season home finale at T-Mobile Arena and he’ll probably be in net Saturday in the last game of the year in Los Angeles against the Kings. It’ll give him a chance to get his timing back, to reconnect with his defensemen, to help give the Knights some momentum going into the opening round of the playoffs against San Jose and to be back where he is happiest — on the ice.

I don’t know too many players who simply love playing hockey the way Fleury does. It’s almost child-like in his affection for the game. You watch 7-, 8- and 9-year-olds scamper all over the ice and having fun. That’s Fleury, even at age 34.

That kind of love becomes infectious inside the locker room. The players see their goalie having fun and it energizes them. They all tap into the little boy inside each of them.

Yes, this is their job. Yes, they’re paid to win. Yes, there’s tremendous pressure and high expectations on all of them, Fleury included. But when you strip all of that away, it reverts back to why you laced up your skates and grabbed a stick in the first place. There’s something special about riding to the rink, getting on the ice and skating and shooting, or, in Fleury’s case, stopping the puck. Hockey should be fun, even at the NHL level. To Fleury’s credit, he never forgot that.

A word or two about Malcolm Subban if I may.

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They’re In, So What’s Next For Golden Knights?

**Southern Nevada Sports Hall of Famer, Steve Carp’s twice-weekly column publishes every Wednesday and Sunday during the Golden Knights season.** 

X marked the spot Friday as the Golden Knights secured their spot in next month’s Stanley Cup Playoffs. Give a stick tap to the Colorado Avalanche which beat Arizona to allow the Knights to clinch.

Now comes the awkward part that will put Gerard Gallant squarely in the crosshairs. How does he handle the final three games of the season?

If last year is an indication, expect a lot of different lineups.

You may recall Brandon Pirri was called up late in the year and he delivered with goals against Vancouver and Edmonton. Then Reilly Smith returned to the lineup against Calgary and we never saw Pirri again.

We’ve seen Gallant do that already with Valentin Zykov. He gave Zykov a couple of games to get the rust off and he could find himself on the ice, especially considering Paul Stastny, Mark Stone and Pierre-Edouard Bellemare are nicked up and Gallant may opt to put them on the shelf for a day or two.

It is a tricky dance for a coach. On one hand, you want to get your team as physically close to 100 percent as possible. On the other, you want to build some positive momentum going into the playoffs.

But is momentum overrated? Consider the Knights opened the 2018 playoffs against the Kings on the heels of back-to-back losses, 4-3 to the Oilers and the 7-1 debacle vs. the Flames. They went on to sweep L.A. and advance to the conference semifinals against San Jose.

Gallant may have tipped his hand after Friday’s game on how he will handle the final week.

You get ready for every game because if you don’t get ready for the game to play, bad things happen to you. I want us to play well. Again, like I said, we want to play our team game. There are some little nagging injuries. We’re going to make sure what we’re doing now is taking care of that stuff. When we play the game, when the game starts, we’re ready to play hockey. -Gallant

The players don’t figure to go through the motions. Remember, there’s still ice time to earn in the playoffs and there’s a glut of forwards and not everyone can play. Someone’s going to sit.

One thing that needs to change regardless of who is in the lineup is the recent trend of starting games slowly. The Knights let Minnesota get the jump on them Friday and it resulted in chasing the game all evening. And while the final push late nearly got the game tied, the fact is it was a loss to a team that played with more energy and far more desperation. It was almost a carbon copy of Wednesday’s performance against Colorado.

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Preserving Fleury Down The Stretch Shouldn’t Affect His Postseason Performance

(Photo Credit: SinBin.vegas Photographer Brandon Andreasen)

First there were concerns Marc-Andre Fleury was playing too much, now some are worried he’s been resting for too long. As we patiently wait for Fleury to make his return between the pipes, the question of how he will look when he gets back in there must be asked.

The 34-year-old goaltender has been in net eight times over the last 15, and none of the last six. Last season, Fleury played 16 out of Vegas’ last 20 and was unbelievable in the Golden Knights goal throughout the playoffs.

Over the past four seasons, Fleury has had various percentages of starts down the stretch and all show signs of consistency in the playoffs.

In 2016-17, Fleury played eight of the last 20 games splitting time with Matt Murray. That Penguins team, of course, went on to win the Cup. Fleury started the first 15 games winning two series (CBJ-5 games, WAS- 7 games) but was relieved of his duties after Game 3 of the Eastern Conference Finals. Pittsburgh went on to win seven of the next 11 games with Murray in net. The light schedule for Fleury didn’t impact his performance for 15 postseason games. He had a .924 save percentage and allowed 2.56 goals per game before getting the hook.

Penguins coach Mike Sullivan was very confident in both goaltenders.

Both of these guys have helped this team win all year long. They’re both high-quality people and they’re high-quality goaltenders. We never take these decisions lightly. They’re extremely difficult decisions. This is the choice that we made for Game 4. –Mike Sullivan

The season prior, Fleury started 12 out of the Penguins last 20 games. He ended the season with 58 games played but his time would come to an end quickly in the postseason. Fleury dropped the first two games of a first round series and was replaced with Murray for the remainder of their Stanley Cup run. Fleury posted a dismal .875 save percentage in those two games.

In 2014-15, Fleury played 16 of the last 20 regular season games. The Penguins lost went on to lose to the New York Rangers in the first round. Fleury was terrific though. He limited the Rangers to just 2.12 goals per game and put up a .927 save percentage.

 GP in Last 20Playoff RecordPlayoff Sv%Playoff GAA
17-181613-7.9272.24
16-1789-6.9242.56
15-16120-1.8753.03
14-15161-4.9272.12

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