What a wild night.
It's a good thing there are only five games remaining. I don't know what to write anymore. So maybe it's best if I just cut-and-paste a few sentences from recent weeks that, once again, seem applicable.
"This young team is hitting its stride." "The Leafs refuse to quit." "This could go down to the wire." "If the dream is dead, someone forgot to tell them." "Who knows what tomorrow may bring."
That's about it, really. Who the hell knows?
In the real world, the odds remain bleak. But these guys no longer inhabit the real world. They left the real world in January. They are now living on a remote island in a parallel universe where odds and numbers and standings are a mirage.
They are immune to reality. And as such, we are on the outside looking in, forced to make sense of this surreal push and endless loop of stirring, near-death victories.
Last night, just as 17 nights before, they beat Buffalo by a 4-3 score.
The surreal spectacle started at 1:34 of the first when Dion Phaneuf barreled down the left side and unleashed a howitzer from the blueline that made Ryan Miller look like Dennis Miller on sleeping pills.
It's possible the Buffalo goaltender – NHL player of the week and long-time haunter of Toronto dreams – simply forgot the month. I mean, if it was December, his frozen reaction to a Phaneuf wind-up would make sense.
In December, that shot does not catch the far corner, as it did last night. In December, that shot does not even catch the far boards. Instead, it explodes off the captain’s stick and forces spectators in the upper bowl to throw popcorn in the air as they run for cover.
But it's not December. It's March and everything about this team is different. The focus, the determination, the resilience, it's all different. The surreal late-season push is different. The atmosphere inside the ACC is different.
When James Reimer, a religious fellow who does not even swear, begins embellishing contact to draw a penalty, you just know it's all different now.
In December, Nazem Kadri looked like a toddler lost at the mall. In March, he has found his game. He was a force to be reckoned with for two periods, blazing around the ice, carrying the puck with poise and verve.
The second goal, banged in by Darryl Boyce at 18:46 of the first, came after Kadri literally willed his way to the net. The third goal, scored by Clarke MacArthur, came after Kadri made a beautiful cross-ice pass, his weapon of choice during this second tour of duty.
In December, the Leafs would’ve been demoralized by Buffalo’s first goal, which came with 12 seconds left in the opening period. They would’ve collapsed after surrendering two goals in 30 seconds, which allowed the Sabres to knot the game 3-3 in the second.
But it’s March and these guys are in their own deranged universe.
After Mikhail Grabovski corralled a dazzling pass from Phil Kessel and snapped the puck in to restore the lead, the stage was set for another wild finish.
Has anybody checked on Joe Bowen this morning? Should we send over a cup of tea with honey? Does he have laryngitis? My God, as the clock ticked down and Buffalo pressed – creating several harrowing moments – how Bowen did not spit out his tongue and vocal cords is a mystery.
We were reduced to the same guttural sounds – "Gaah!" "Eeya!” "Ooowee!" We were speaking gibberish. We were hoarse with delirium. We were barking repetitive exclamations at the TV – "Kill this penalty! Kill it!" "Stop that shot, Reims! Stop it!" "Clear the puck! Clear it!"
When the final buzzer sounded, I was shocked to find myself in the exact same position as Reimer, with a couple of minor differences. He was kneeling on the ice, looking up and smiling. I was kneeling on the floor, looking at my chest and begging my heart to restart.
So it's Boston tomorrow. Brace yourself for another wild night.
No matter what happens over the next five games, you really have to admire these guys for doing all those things I mentioned in the third paragraph.
Grim reality is rarely this much fun to watch.
MAIN PHOTO: RENE JOHNSTON/TORONTO STAR
It was a good run, people. A fun run. An inspiring run. A run in which we laughed and cheered and thought, "You know? I really think they might pull this off."
The odds were never good. The words "mathematically eliminated" have not yet been uttered. But after last night's 4-2 loss in Detroit – combined with Buffalo's back-to-back wins this weekend – I think we can safely place the 2010-2011 season in a memento box and shelve it for future reference.
Are there positives? Yes. There are so many positives. Prospects, picks, free agents, cap room – we can discuss all of this in the remaining days ahead, before we remove our name badges, shake hands and vanish into the summer.
For now, though, it's time to just feel. Time to make sense of the season that is nearly in the books. Angry? Sad? Disappointed? Excited?
Post-game comments are now open for the sixth last time.
PHOTO: CHRIS YOUNG/CANADIAN PRESS
How To Survive A Trip To Hockeytown
BY GABRIEL D.
For the last twelve years, I've lived behind enemy lines in Detroit.
I've witnessed two Stanley Cup parades. I've also endured endless mockery, heated debates and even a few people offering up a sympathetic, "Oh, I'm sorry" after learning my true identity as a Leafs fan.
I was inside the Joe for a 6-2 trouncing – the Leafs getting trounced – in 2002 when a guy named Corey Schwab stood in for Cujo. On another occasion, I was threatened as I walked across a bridge linking the two sides of Jefferson Avenue at 11:30 p.m. while wearing my Leaf jersey (after yet another 3-2 Leafs loss).
My desks at school and work have been plastered with Red Wing paraphernalia more than once.
While all of this may not qualify me as a Red Wings expert, I believe my first-hand experiences with Detroit can shed some light and help those planning to cross the border for tonight's big game.
Here now, some tips for Leaf fans:
Several years ago, I was waiting at a gas station in southwest Detroit to pick up my cousin who was coming across the border from Kitchener around midnight. As I stood there, a young woman who looked like she had just stepped out of a 50 Cent video appeared.
Suddenly and without warning, she pinched and twisted my nipples.
Detroit is a very special city but only 50 per cent of downtown is actually safe for sightseeing without an armed guard. After dark, this number drops to about 5 per cent – less if it’s obvious you are in town to cheer for a visiting sports team.
So if the Leafs win tonight, I suggest making a beeline directly from the Joe to Windsor. Pinched nipples is the least of what goes on here.
If you must use a freeway in Detroit, keep something in mind: The posted speed limits are more like suggestions and the signs are strictly ornamental. If you're not exceeding the posted limit, you will probably get rear-ended.
Do you really want to be standing on the shoulder in your Leaf jersey, exchanging license and insurance information with an irate Wing fan? No, you do not.
Michigan is one of the only states to impose no weight limits on road vehicles. As a result, the only real deterrent to speeding is potholes.
During one of the parades I mentioned, my buddies jumped into a random limo that was driving down Woodward Avenue and got a free ride all the way to Hart Plaza. I ran alongside, trying to squeeze in through the window while hoping to not disappear into an asphalt crater.
Parking at Joe Louis kind of, well, it kind of SUCKS BIG TIME! There are several parking lots/structures but every single one requires a long, meandering foot journey to reach the arena.
And exiting these structures after a game is an event in itself. If you're back on the freeway by 1 a.m., consider yourself incredibly lucky.
Out-of-town visitors often choose to park at Hockeytown Café, which offers a shuttle that transports ticket holders to the Joe. But as a Leaf fan, this ride could be more harrowing than finding a parking spot in the first place.
There's an excellent chance several Wing fans on the shuttle will already be intoxicated. If so, there's also an excellent chance they will notice your blue-and-white clothing.
You know those nature documentaries in which a zebra is brought down and devoured by a pack of hungry hyenas? You will be that zebra.
While the Joe is an arena rich with history, the physical facility is something that makes even die-hard Wing fans cringe. The concourse is crowded. Weird smells are not uncommon. Eyes can quickly get irritated.
Also, beware the flying octopi. Though most Wing fans don't remember where this tradition started, those creatures don't only come out in the playoffs and they aren't limited to the ice surface.
Oh, and try to avoid the bathrooms.
If this is impossible, guys, expect to find one communal trough instead of individual urinals. You may also run into Cam Neely's character (Sea Bass) from Dumb and Dumber.
Although I've never tasted one myself, people spend a lot of time talking about the hot dogs at the Joe. Are they delicious? Expensive? Worth the wait?
These are good questions. One thing to avoid asking, though, is how long have they been sitting and marinating on those creaky rollers?
Before chatting up a Wing fan, ask them to name at least five players on the current roster. You'll be surprised at how many "fans" can't complete this simple task.
If they stammer, just walk away and don't even bother.
The most likely scenario is you have just encountered a "Spring Wing" – a Detroit inhabitant who mysteriously morphs into a hockey fan between March and April. Also, check for swollen ankles; jumping on and off the red bandwagon often leaves physical marks.
When a Red Wing fan says Toronto "hasn't won a Stanley Cup since 1867" – yes, to some locals the Leafs' last championship coincided with Canada's independence – and the "Wings have four Cups in a span of 11 years," respond with math.
The number 13 is still greater than the number 11. In 100 years, nobody is going to pay any special attention to who won the most championships between, say, 1997 and 2008.
When they come back to you after Googling "leafs+Stanley+Cups" and claim Toronto only has 11 championships, not 13, gently remind them of something: there used to be two hockey teams named the Toronto St. Pats and the Toronto Arenas.
If all else fails, change the subject and bring up the Lions. Then get ready to run.
Wearing your Leaf gear during the game is fine. There is security. The game is televised. Nobody will try anything.
But once the final buzzer sounds, change out of your jersey. Remove your cap. Try not to stand out. The rest of your stay in Detroit is just getting starting and you don't want to take any chances.
Gabriel D. (aka gettingcozywithsarkozy) formed a deep bond with the blue-and-white in 1993. Wayne Gretzky and the Kings had just eliminated the Leafs from the playoffs. As Gabriel walked under a dreary sky, he heard taunts and looked around to see others pointing and laughing. At this precise moment, a special connection was forged with the emblem on the Toronto Maple Leafs lunchbox he was carrying. He was in Grade 2.
MAIN PHOTO: PAUL SANCYA/ASSOCIATED PRESS
Sometimes it's best to not ask questions or think about something for too long.
How are hotdogs made? Never mind. Seriously. Just take this bun, pick your condiments and enjoy. Why was the world recently obsessed with Rebecca Black? Doesn't matter. Tomorrow is Saturday and Sunday comes afterwards, that's all you really need to know.
Similarly, there is not much point in scrutinizing the win in Colorado. It was as sloppy as a hobo in a thunderstorm. It was as pretty as Picasso's Guernica. It was as relaxing as a full-body probe from invading space aliens.
Never mind. Doesn't matter. Winning is winning.
The Leafs are three points out this morning. I know. I can't stop laughing. Not because there is anything remotely funny about this insane, gut-churning ride. The stress is killing me. No, the laughter stems more from a mix of pride and disbelief: These magnificent bastards refuse to abandon the improbable dream.
Let the maladjusted shut-ins continue to drone on about probability and statistical projections. Let them tut-tut and insist it's never going to happen.
The Leafs are not listening. They think it can happen and, really, that's the most important variable. They own the third-best record in the NHL since the All-Star break. They are dominating on the road. They are finding new ways to win.
In fact, the 4-3 nail-biter in Denver was important for two reasons: 1. It kept the Leafs in the race and has now set-up The Most Important Weekend Of The Season™. 2. It was one of the few times this season they found a way not to lose against a weaker opponent when fate looked to be conspiring with disappointment yet again.
Columbus, St. Louis, Atlanta, New Jersey, NY Islanders, Florida, Colorado, Ottawa and Edmonton – these are the teams below Toronto in the league standings this morning. Now consider this: The Leafs have lost 12 games to those teams, including seven in regulation, since October 18.
So when Colorado scored a shorthanded goal at 5:55 of the first – actually, Dion Phaneuf scored it for them, making the time somehow feel more like 6:66 – Leaf fans immediately thought, "Uh oh. Not this again."
But then it happened.
The Leafs assumed visitor control of the period. Nikolai Kulemin scored twice, morphing into Mr. Clutch by first jumping on a Mikhail Grabovski rebound and then, with six seconds remaining, banging one past Brian Elliott from a godawful angle.
In the second, repeated thoughts of, "Uh oh. Not this again."
After going up 3-1 on a gorgeous deflection by Tyler Bozak, the Leafs suddenly found themselves on the receiving end of sustained pressure as the Avs decided to do something they haven't done much this season: Impress the tens of fans inside the Pepsi Center.
Since the game started late, and I was already sleep-deprived and running on Red Bull, my notes from this second period now appear to be written by Pierre McGuire:
"I tell you what, this pressure is intense – intense!" "The Leafs need to weather this storm – this is a Colorado avalanche right here." "Oh, wow, look at the Avs cycle down low and muscle their way in the corners. WOW. That's beautiful stuff right there. I tell you what, these guys are snarling like junkyard dogs right now and Toronto better check for bite marks. I tell you what."
But then it happened. Key players assumed key roles.
James Reimer, who could now move to the woods, start his own cult and have 80 per cent of the city follow him, was heroic. He made save after save, most from in close, several of the spectacular variety.
Luke Schenn, solely responsible for the Bozak goal, was a tower of power in both ends. Phaneuf was surly and punishing. Mike Komisarek, back from injury, played possibly his best game of the season. The top two lines buried their chances, including Phil Kessel, who scored the eventual game winner on the power play in the third.
Even when fate seemed determined to hand the Leafs another loss to a weaker opponent – whether it was Nazem Kadri somehow missing an open net in the second or Mike Brown using his leg instead of his stick to score a goal that would not count in the third – the Leafs pushed back and did just enough at just the right time.
After Matt Duchene made it 4-3 at 11:54 of the third, the heart-stopping finish was on.
The Avs pressed. They skated hard. They controlled the play, outshooting Toronto 12-8 over the period, including a deranged blitz of one shot per every 20 seconds in a final minute that really should have been sponsored by Rolaids.
Never mind. Doesn't matter. The good guys prevailed.
So here we are.
Buffalo plays twice this weekend at home, tonight against Florida and tomorrow against Jersey. Carolina faces Tampa this evening. And the Leafs are headed to Motown, for a Hockey Night in Canada battle with the Wings tomorrow.
So by this time on Sunday morning, well, let's not think about it just yet. These guys believe. All we can really do is watch and enjoy.
MAIN PHOTO: RICK WILKING/REUTERS
Damn you, Montreal! Damn you, Ottawa! Damn you, Florida!
You ruined a perfectly good 3-0 victory tonight. Your inability to win took the sheen off James Reimer's third shutout. It sullied the Leafs' symmetrical and lethally efficient output of one goal per period on a measly 17 shots.
I know, I know. It is folly to assign blame to Montreal, Ottawa, Florida or anybody else. It's not their fault. Given the number of points Toronto squandered in the first half, it's a small miracle they are even in this improbable race.
Still, it's frustrating to watch this team capitalize on chances, get stellar goaltending, earn another road win and, yet, have it mean jacksquat in the grand scheme of things. "Keeping pace" may be technically correct but there is one less game to play now, which is significant with so few remaining.
You can't keep pace indefinitely.
But that's where we are.
All the Leafs can do now is win their games and hope to hell others lose. That is the nature of any race when you are behind. Tonight, they ran as fast as they could – and give them full credit for that – but nobody ahead had the decency to stumble and trip.
My wife and mother-in-law both overuse the phrase, "Simple as that."
There's an election coming. Simple as that. We'll need to think about fertilizing the lawn soon. Simple as that. The cats need their claws trimmed. Simple as that. (Actually, there is nothing simple about that as the scratch on my cheek now reveals.)
Where the race is concerned, the Leafs forfeited control of their destiny in December. Now with eight games to go, their fate is shared among a rotating cast of teams.
So with Buffalo, Carolina and the Rangers also winning tonight – see the aforementioned "damns" – this impressive Leaf victory was for statistical naught. The relative standings did not change. The magnificent bastards remain in 10th spot, five points out of eighth spot, just like when the night started.
Simple as that.
The highlights, really, were three breakaway saves Reimer made in the first two periods. Everything else had a workman-like quality that was accentuated by the drab atmosphere inside the misleadingly named Xcel Energy Center.
My God, we complain about the ACC. But who programs the music in Minnesota? Is it a tone-deaf birthday clown? Ernie and Bert? That Muzak version of Zeppelin's "Kashmir" they played in the first was excruciating.
No wonder the Wild are struggling.
What's with the public address announcer? Did they find him at a passport office, where he perfected his delivery by calling out next-in-line numbers in a groggy monotone? And what's with the hometown broadcasters? I gather they had trouble pronouncing certain Leaf names this evening.
It's weird. I mean, considering they have to repeatedly say "Clayton Stoner" and "Cal Clutterbuck" – try saying "Clutterbuck" five times quickly and see what it turns into – you'd think "Phaneuf" would be a welcome change.
But I digress.
Never mind the race for a minute.
The good news is this: The Leafs are coming together, slowly but surely. The sum of the parts is taking shape. The future is bright. And after more parts are added this summer, it will be even brighter.
And so in the long-term, let's call it the journey to distinguish it from the short-term race, it feels like they've finally passed a critical junction. Instead of young and drifting aimlessly they are young and moving forward.
Are there still rough patches ahead? Undoubtedly. Will there be moments in which we fling inanimate objects at our television sets or demand so-and-so's head on a platter? Probably.
But tonight, once again, we watched a team that's learning to win in new ways while learning not to lose in old ways. They should be proud of their second-half accomplishments. If they can start next season the way they are finishing this one, we won't be scoreboard watching or eating lemon squares or blaming others come March.
Simple as that.
MAIN PHOTO: ANDY KING/REUTERS
Rebuilding In The Peaks And Valleys Of Leaf Passion
BY MOE GREEN
Sometimes we Leaf fans get a little unhinged. After all, it's a lot to ask of us: To be patient. To wait. Just a bit more. Next fall. Next spring. Soon. Soon, it will be different. Promise. It will be so much better. Maybe. Hopefully.
"The Passion That Unites Us All" is the corporate motto of the Toronto Maple Leafs as conceived by the board of MLSE. I do think it's accurate, though I would drop the "All."
We Leaf fans are a passionate bunch. Sometimes, passionate at the expense of patient. But that's just it, isn't it? Passion and patience do not mix well together. They are like oil and water, positive and negative, matter and anti-matter. They are diametrically opposed concepts. They cannot exist within the same time and space.
You can't have your cake and eat it too. "Hockey is a religion here," we're told, Toronto is the "Vatican of Hockey." The Leafs are "different than other franchises." We are "special and special rules apply."
Translation: An ordinary rebuild is okay for ordinary teams. But we want something – deserve something – more. MLSE and its chief representative here on earth, Brian Burke, sell this exalted ideal to us on a daily basis.
And we buy it.
Are they right? Are we different? We literally weep when our favourite players are traded. For us, a trade is like a death in the family. We feel the pain of every hit and share in the jubilation of every goal. We have supported this team through a success-drought that makes the dust bowl seem like a day at the beach. We post long, impassioned and erudite soliloquies on blogs at 3 in the morning... on school nights.
And all of this for a team now sitting in 22nd place.
So please don't tell us "patience for the rebuild" is somehow a gift bestowed from high above by our betters. That is simply not the stuff real Leaf fans are made of. Real Leaf fans are made of blood and guts and screams and tears and hair ripped out from the roots and, yes, passion.
We overrate our players' performances like doting parents overrate their kids' performances at their first school play. We see our players through the blinded eyes of love struck high-schoolers. We meticulously analyze every fragment of our season with calculators, spreadsheets and Ouija boards.
Then we follow every single move in the off-season. We read every article from every source no matter how obscure. We agonize over every trade rumour, every whisper no matter how small or seemingly insignificant. We record games and do frame-by-frame analysis of facial expressions on the bench to gain insight into moods and confidence levels. We follow the players on our team like John Hinckley Jr. followed Jodie Foster.
We are obsessed. And obsession, by its very nature, is impatient.
When we go to bed after a win, it's the goals we replay over and over in our heads like silent movies. After a loss, it's the forward lines we juggle, the defensive pairings we adjust. While the non-believers, those not burdened with this passion, drift into peaceful sleep, our minds never stop churning in blue-and-white.
So as the Leafs embark upon a road trip this week, as the games remaining dwindle down to single digits, let's make one thing clear: When you ask a Leaf fan to be patient, you are asking a lot. When you ask us to wait until next season or beyond for consistency and success, you really do not understand us.
If you are content to patiently watch this team develop under the thoughtful tutelage of Brian Burke and Ron Wilson, I cautiously and wearily submit that you may be a fan of the Toronto Maple Leafs but you are not a real Leaf fan.
If you are not as deeply saddened at the sight of Tomas Kaberle donning the putrid brown and yellow of our hated division rivals as you would be watching your own son or daughter go off to war – on the side of the enemy – you are not a real Leaf fan.
If you have the patience to happily wait until next season to taste the playoffs, if you can talk about trading Clarke MacArthur or Mikhail Grabovski without having a little sick well up in your throat, if you can enjoy the NHL postseason after the Leafs have been eliminated from contention yet again, then you may be a hockey fan, possibly even a fan of the Toronto Maple Leafs, but you are simply not a real Leaf fan.
After all is said and done, it is the passion that unites us.
The pseudonymous Moe Green is a former-Torontonian and Leaf-lifer grinding it out passionately deep in the heart of Texas.
Playoffs or No Playoffs, The Future Has Never Looked Brighter
BY TYLER PADLEY
This time of year is especially cruel for members of Leafs Nation. We are forced to temporarily change our rooting allegiances for the spring or, even worse, stop watching altogether.
Yes, the boys in blue and white are at risk of missing the playoffs for yet another year. But even though you've heard this countless times already, I'm now writing to tell you this year is different – and in a good way.
I'm here to encourage fellow members of Leafs Nation to take solace in this up-and-down season because, when you glance at the numbers, the tale of 2010-2011 promises to be the start of something very special:
1. Let us take solace... in the fact the Leafs are one of two teams with three players in the Top 30 for goals scored. Phil Kessel, Mikhail Grabovski and Nikolai Kulemin, as of this writing, stand at 19th, 20th and 29th in the league, respectively. The New York Islanders are the only other team with this kind of triple threat. While Grabovski and Kulemin have set new career highs, it's not unreasonable to expect both young players to repeat this success. Kessel just happens to be the youngest of the bunch and he is closing in on his third consecutive 30-goal campaign.
2. Let us take solace... in the fact the big gamble to acquire Dion Phaneuf seems to be paying off. Over the last 23 games, he's been playing at a 0.65 points-per-game pace. If he can maintain this over an entire season, it would extrapolate to 14 goals, 37 assists and 51 points.
Being paired with the young Keith Aulie has contributed to Phaneuf's resurgence, as has his increased power play time since the Tomas Kaberle trade.
Any way you look at it, the captain's play has been stellar over a sustained period this year and we will need that going forward.
3. Let us take solace... in the fact James Reimer appears to be the real deal. With 26 starts for the Leafs this year, he boasts a 15-7-4 record, has 2 shutouts, a 2.59 GAA and a sparkling .922 save percentage, which is tied for sixth in the entire league.
Reimer has thrived in back-to-back games, has bounced back from bad games and has stolen games all by himself. Most important, he gives us a chance to win every night.
And if you can't take solace in all of this, how about the fact Ben Scrivens’ numbers with the Marlies this year (11-9-4, 2 SO, 2.26 GAA and .926 save percentage) are eerily close to what Reimer's were last season (14-8-2, 1 SO, 2.25 GAA and 0.925 save percentage).
4. Let us take solace... in the fact we've had very promising reports from a great number of prospects. Whether it's three-time OHL Player of The Week Greg McKegg, who keeps adding to his career best totals (49 goals, 43 assists, 92 points and +20 in 66 games) with the Erie Otters or WCHA Player of The Year Matt Frattin, who led the league in scoring with 33 goals and 21 assists and is Top 10 finalist for the Hobey Baker Award.
And let's not forget about standout AHL prospects like Joe Colborne, Jussi Rynnas and the recently recalled Nazem Kadri, who scored his first NHL goal on Saturday.
5. Let us take solace... in the fact general manager Brian Burke now has the tools to do his job this off-season. At the deadline, he cleared a lot of salary and with the expiring contract of J.S. Giguere, Burke should have more than $24 million to wheel-and-deal in the weeks ahead.
He also has two late first round draft picks, multiple second and third round picks, prospects and players that other teams will no doubt covet. (When you're trading Kaberle or Kris Versteeg near the deadline, the market is limited. But every team will listen when you offer up a first round pick before the draft.)
Add that to a crop of free agents that currently includes Brad Richards, Kevin Bieksa, Andrei Markov and Simon Gagne, and you can expect this to be a very busy off-season for Toronto's front office.
Over the past six years of crawling and scratching through the season only to collapse before the finish line, never before have the Leafs had so much going for them this late in March: The youth, the cap space, the plethora of picks, the prospects and the impending free agents.
While not seeing them in the post-season may still be painful, Leafs Nation can take solace in the promise of better days ahead.
Tyler Padley (aka TPiddy) was born in North Bay and now lives in Etobicoke. A card-carrying member of Leafs Nation since 1990, he spends entirely too much time analyzing all things blue and white.
MAIN PHOTO: STEVE RUSSELL/TORONTO STAR
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