October 24, 2014

Washington Capitals Postseason Roundtable Part III: Rate the goalies

As we’ve done in year’s past, District Sports Page staff and a couple friends in the industry conducted a roundtable to rate the recently completed Washington Capitals season. Obviously, with the changing of the guard over the weekend, the season was in no was satisfying of satisfactory, and our grades this season really reflect where our contributors to the roundtable sit with regards to the changes necessary to make the Caps true contenders again.

We’ll rate the offense, defense, goaltending, coaching and administration throughout the week.

Our panelists: Dave Nichols, Editor-in-Chief of District Sports Page; Katie Brown, beat writer for DSP; J.J. Regan, contributor to DSP; Sky Kerstein, 106.7 The Fan; Harry Hawkings, RockTheRed.com.

Part III: Rate the goalies (with grade an explanation):

DAVE: B. Look, on the list of things that went wrong for the Capitals this season — despite management’s ham-handedness shuttling four goalies in and out — goaltending wouldn’t be particularly high on the list. Braden Holtby was decent-to-very good most of the season, but a little slump around Thanksgiving found him on the bench watching Phillipp Grubauer try to save the team. Then Michal Neuvirth was able to wiggle his way out of town, only to have Holtby usurped once again by trade object Jaroslav Halak.

The biggest problem with the Caps goalies was the sheer number of shots they faced this season. Holtby’s 5v5 save percentage was good, but 93 percent of 1000 is more than 93 percent of 500, if you get my drift. No goalie could thrive on the number of shots the porous Caps defense allowed. That has to be a main point of emphasis in the offseason. Holtby and Grubauer going forward should form a solid foundation. We’ll see if the new bosses share that opinion or want another guy.

KATIE: If I had to rate the management of the goaltenders, this would be a D. Since I don’t think any of the Capitals’ problems were directly related to goaltending, this gets a B. Despite the gross mismanagement of assets, goaltending was one of the only positions that did not end up being a completely unmitigated disaster.

Braden Holtby is and should be the Capitals’ #1 goaltender. There was no reason to trade for Jaroslav Halak at the trade deadline, nor was there reason to sit the starting and backup goaltenders for a month in favor of Phillip Grubauer, no matter how well he played. Halak is a good goalie, but the Capitals were not lacking talent in net, and goaltending was certainly not to blame for the rest of the team’s ills, but any problems there were a symptom of defensive issues and poor puck possession by the rest of the team. Oates’ proclivity for “riding the hot hand” and starting goalies in back-to-backs as well as tinkering with players’ styles didn’t do them any favors either.

J.J.: C. With the team’s dysfunction and goalie carousel, goaltending appeared to be much more of an issue than it actually was.

Jaroslav Halak was brought in at the trade deadline to bolster the team in net and he performed well. He had the best GAA (2.31) and save percentage (.930) of the four goalies who played for the Caps this season, but managed a record of only 5-4-3. Even though his stats show he was an upgrade, that didn’t translate in the standings. If you get better at one position but the team does not improve then that position wasn’t the problem.

The Caps were 27th this season in shots against. More shots mean more goals. The team struggled both in terms of defense and possession and it made the goaltending look far worse than it was.

The only real notable problem in net was Braden Holtby’s struggle with the team’s change in goaltending philosophy. Holtby was supplanted by Philipp Grubauer midway through the season and had to regain his confidence, but he seemed to play better towards the end of the season.

The goaltending wasn’t great, but it wasn’t terrible either.

SKY: C+.  Could they have been better? Absolutely.  But the goaltending was handled poorly the entire season, having three up here at the same time was a disaster.  Also the reported comments of McPhee saying the Caps would be ten points better with better goaltending was the cherry on top.  Jaroslav Halak proved that wasn’t the case.  Halak said it was the first time he’s ever seen a two on zero breakaway in front of him.  Welcome to the 2013-14 Capitals, Jaro.  It wasn’t the goaltending.  Braden Holtby and Philipp Grubauer have bright futures.

HARRY: I give the goaltending an A-.  No matter who was in goal, almost every night they were forced to keep the team in the game by facing an obscene amount of shots from everywhere on the ice.  The only goalie who played significant time who struggled at all was Braden Holtby, who fans have turned on (for some reason) despite his .915 overall save percentage and impressive .930 even strength save percentage.  That latter number was good enough for a tie for 6th in the NHL, alongside Jonathan Bernier and Henrik Lundqvist.  Overall, the goalies were a bright spot.

Washington Capitals land Halak for Neuvirth, Klesla

The Washington Capitals acquired goalie Jaroslav Halak, the man that almost single-handedly knocked them out of the 2010 Stanley Cup playoffs, and a third round pick in the 2015 draft from the Buffalo Sabres in exchange for G Michal Neuvirth and D Rostislav Klesla, acquired Tuesday in a trade with Phoenix.

From the press release:

Halak, 28, has posted a record of 24-9-4 with a 2.23 goals-against average and a .917 save percentage in 40 games with the St. Louis Blues this season. Halak currently sits ninth among NHL goaltenders in wins, 10th in goals-against average and third in shutouts (4).

Through his eight NHL seasons in Montreal and St. Louis, Halak has played in 260 career NHL games, earning a 139-81-26 record with a 2.38 goals-against average and a .917 save percentage. Additionally, Halak has appeared in 23 career playoff games with Montreal and St. Louis, posting a record of 10-11-0 with a 2.42 goals-against average and a ..923 save percentage. Halak’s career shootout save percentage of .711 ranks ninth among active goaltenders with at least 25 career shootouts.

While many thought goaltending was the least of the Caps problems this season, the move frees the team from Neuvirth’s salary next season. Combined with the Erat move on Tuesday, and the salary cap going up for next season, the Caps seem to be sitting pretty this offseason.

Washington Capitals Game 57 Recap: Capitals shut out 1-0 by Islanders, but Neuvirth solid in third straight start

In the Washington Capitals’ crucial Metropolitan Division matchup against the New York Islanders, both teams were scoreless after two periods, which hadn’t even occurred once in any of the Capitals 57 games this season. The Capitals also desperately needed a win against a divisional opponent to stay in the playoff hunt, but fell short and were shut out 1-0 by Evgeny Nabokov and the Islanders.

The Capitals’ power play struggles continued, even against the Islanders’ league worst penalty kill. For a team that relies as heavily on the man advantage to score as the Capitals do, going 0-for-6 on the power play is not an ideal situation.

On the other hand, it isn’t good to rely on the man advantage as much as the Capitals have this season. Teams don’t get as many power plays in the playoffs, so they have to find ways to score at even strength, something the Capitals have had difficulty doing consistently.

Stringing a few wins together would probably help the Capitals postseason chances. Karl Alzner cautioned against the team going “win one, lose one, the rest of the way.” Adam Oates agreed that close games like the 1-0 decision Tuesday to the Islanders are games that playoff teams have to win.

He didn’t imply that the Capitals are not a playoff team, but he has a good point. Much has been made over the last several years of the Capitals’ lack of “killer instinct” or, more formally, taking advantage of an opponent while they are vulnerable. The Islanders are drowning in the Metro Division and have the worst penalty kill in the league, but the Capitals couldn’t throw a knockout punch while the Islanders were exposed.

Michael Neuvirth was solid in his third straight start, his third game in five days. He stopped 27 of 28 shots, and certainly deserved better that what he got from his teammates – five penalty kills and no goal support.

“We just have to stay out of the penalty box,” said Eric Fehr. “We’ve been doing this to ourselves for the past two weeks. Takes the momentum right out of the game.”

Oates also pointed to weariness as a factor in the loss. “Maybe a little fatigue for the boys,” he said. “We played a lot of hockey. It is tough sledding out there, game in and game out, and you’re fighting a lot of uphill battles. I didn’t think they executed either. Both power plays were pretty ineffective, and their goalie played well early. Neuvy [Michal Neuvirth] played well the whole game. We didn’t test them much late.”

The Capitals take on the Winnipeg Jets on Thursday and the New Jersey Devils on Saturday to round out their homestand before the Olympic break.

Are Washington Capitals buyers or sellers at NHL Trade Deadline?

Capitals GM George McPhee (Stock Photo by Cheryl Nichols)

Capitals GM George McPhee (Stock Photo by Cheryl Nichols)

With the trade deadline approaching, the Washington Capitals are rapidly reaching a pivotal point in the season. Things are so close in the standings that the Caps could easily make a run into the postseason — or bottom out completely.

That leaves general manager George McPhee with some tough decisions to make. Should the Caps buy, sell, or stand pat?

With Tuesday’s loss to the New York Islanders, the Caps are only three points out of the final wild card spot. With the playoffs still well within the team’s reach, it is hard to imagine McPhee giving up on the season. Yet, the Caps’ struggles thus far show they are far from a serious contender in the playoffs. If McPhee wants to avoid another early postseason exit, changes will have to be made.

During the broadcast of Sunday’s game, analyst Joe Micheletti said McPhee told him the Caps would have 10 more points with better goaltending. Could this mean that McPhee is targeting a goalie at the deadline?

According to capgeek.com, the Caps have less than $200,000 in cap space. Trading for another goalie would likely mean offering Braden Holtby, Michal Neuvirth or Philipp Grubauer in the deal. Of those three, Neuvirth currently has the largest contract with a $2.5 million cap hit. Finding a definite upgrade in net for that amount of money will be difficult.

Despite McPhee’s comments, the team’s biggest weakness is defense. In Tuesday’s game against the New York Islanders, the Caps’ defensive pairings were Karl Alzner/John Carlson, Dmitry Orlov/Connor Carrick, and John Erskine/Tyson Strachan. It doesn’t get much weaker than that. The top pair is solid, but the other four…yikes.

Orlov has struggled tremendously as of late, Carrick needs more time in Hershey to develop, Erskine is…well, Erskine, and Strachan is an emergency call up. The Caps have needed another top four defenseman all season, but their defensive depth was once considered to be a strength. With Mike Green’s status going forward uncertain, McPhee must address the defense.

The Caps are also in need of a top-six scorer. Alex Ovechkin may be carrying the offense with his league-leading 39 goals, but behind him, the team’s second leading scorer is Joel Ward with 17. If the Caps are relying on Ward for their secondary scoring, they’re in trouble.

The fact is that behind Ovechkin, the Caps just do not have any major scoring threats. Relying on a single player is not a recipe for success especially when it comes to the playoffs.

The good news for the Caps is that they have assets they can offer other teams.

The trials and tribulations of Martin Erat since he came to Washington have been well documented. At this point, it would be best for everyone involved to find a new home for him. His recent selection to the Czech Republic Olympic team shows he is still highly regarded in the hockey community and could still draw some attention at the deadline.

While most general managers would probably prefer to see their stars stay forego the Olympics, Erat going provides a great opportunity for him to showcase his talents to prospective NHL suitors. Oates has never been able to find a spot for Erat in his lineup, but he may fit in well under another coach in Sochi. This is a great opportunity to see what Erat can really do.

It may not seem like it, but the Caps also have a goalie to sell. Grubauer showed in his time in D.C. this season that he is ready to be an NHL goalie. That gives them one too many. As Neuvirth is the highest paid and his agent already announced he was seeking a trade, he would make the most sense in terms of a deadline trade. If there’s an NHL team willing on taking a chance on him as their number one, they could make McPhee an offer he can’t refuse.

It may seem odd that the Caps would trade away a goalie when this has been a weakness for them this season, but McPhee is going to have to make a decision about his goalies either now or over the summer. With three, they will have to sell one. If another team is willing to take Neuvirth for the right price, McPhee will have to take that chance.

Rather than making any bold moves, however, the far more likely scenario is that McPhee will stand pat. He traditionally does not like picking up rental players or making drastic moves midseason.

McPhee will ship Erat if he can and perhaps pickup another depth defenseman, but that’s about it. Some fans may have grand dreams of trading for Ryan Callahan or Thomas Vanek, but those kinds of moves just are not likely to happen, given the Caps salary cap issue.
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JJ Regan is a Contributor to District Sports Page. He is an aspiring sports journalist currently earning his master’s degree in interactive journalism from American University and has his own website at regansports.com. He is also a digital freelancer for Comcast SportsNet Washington and Baltimore and is a contributor for Yahoo Sports on the Capitals and Redskins. JJ follows all D.C. sports but specializes in the Capitals. You can follow him on Twitter @TheDC_Sportsguy.

Washington Capitals Game 56 Recap: Capitals soar to 6-5 overtime win against Red Wings

Photo credit: Greg Fiume

Photo credit: Greg Fiume

After playing five road games in eight nights and four games in 5 1/2 days, the Washington Capitals showed little sign of fatigue as they skated to an early lead against the Detroit Red Wings, eventually winning 6-5 in overtime.

The Red Wings went down 2-0 early in the first, and trailed 3-1 by the end of the first period, but a Gustav Nyquist hat trick kept them within striking distance. Justin Abdelkader tied the game at 5-5 late in the third, but Alex Ovechkin scored his 39th goal of the season in overtime to send the Wings packing.

Michal Neuvirth got his second consecutive start after a 42-save outing in Detroit on Friday night. He’s been playing well, but defensive lapses in the Caps’ own zone gave the Red Wings ample opportunity to attack — and score. The Red Wings surged back from two 2-goal deficits, and even though Neuvirth allowed five goals, he was happy with his overall performance.

“I was just focusing on myself,” said Neuvirth. “After I had a few behind me, I wasn’t looking at the scoreboard. Playing just a game it was 0-0”

“Pretty happy with the win tonight. [I’m] feeling more comfortable mentally and physically. This win is definitely going to help my confidence, but today is today,” he continued. “We still have three games at home and we have to be ready, take one game at a time.”

With Mike Green and Brooks Laich both absent from the lineup, younger players like Connor Carrick are tasked with more responsibility. Carrick stepped up to the plate, and assisted on Jason Chimera’s opening goal and Joel Ward’s second period tally, a solid game for the youngster.

“The first goal of the game, he jumped up,” said Oates “Wardo’s [Joel Ward] second goal he jumped up when we needed it because we were reeling. He had poise with the puck in overtime, right at the start of overtime. He’s still learning the game. It can be overwhelming at times.”

“They have some Stanley Cup Champions over there coming at him, one of the best puck handling teams there is. I’m sure at times it’s overwhelming, but I thought all-in-all he hung in there and did a great job.”

The Capitals have three more games (all at home) before the Olympic break, and need to gather as many points as they possibly can to help their playoff cause. As it stands, the Caps have 13 regulation wins in 56 games and are in playoff contention purely because the Metropolitan Division is otherwise putrid aside from the Pittsburgh Penguins.

Washington Capitals Game 55 Recap: Ovechkin ties game with 7 seconds, Caps fall in SO 4-3

Alex Ovechkin scored with seven seconds left to force overtime, but after a scoreless extra period, the Washington Capitals fell to the Detroit Red Wings in  the shootout, 4-3.

Ovechkin’s game-tying goal was his league-leading 39th of the season.

Michael Neuvirth was the other star of the game for the Caps. The goalie was spectacular in spots, recording 42 saves on 45 shots.

For the game, the Wings had 81 total shot attempts, the Caps 54.

The Caps killed two penalties in the first period, getting down in shots 15-3. But late in the frame, Martin Erat drew a tripping call, and on the resulting  power play, Nick Backstrom made a wizardly pass to Jason Chimera on the far post for the tap-in and a 1-0 lead.

The Caps carried that narrow margin to the dressing room, despite being outshot 22-5 for the period. The Red Wings had 32 shot attempts, compared to just 12 for the Caps.

At the start of the second period, Dmitry Orlov pinched in at the point while the Caps were in a line change, but a turnover sent Patrick Eaves the other way alone on Michal Neuvirth. Neuvirth came out between the circles to challenge the breakaway, and in the resultant scramble, Drew Miller banged home a bouncing puck.

With 1:39 left in the period, Riley Sheahan won a faceoff in the left wing circle back to center point, where Danny DeKeyser blasted a slapshot. Jason Chimera tried ot get over to provide resistance, but did little more than screen Neuvirth, as the goalie raised his arms after the shot went past him as if to say, “Where did that come from?”

The Caps tied it at two midway in the third, with Casey Wellman getting three whacks at the same puck, finally beating Jimmy Howard.

But with 10:15 left, John Erskine tripped over his own feet at the offensive blue line and turned the puck over to Gustav Nyqvist. The rookie forward carried in on a two-on-two, delayed, then snapped it past Neuvirth.

But Alex Ovechkin still had a trick up his sleeve. After a late power play, where the Caps peppered Jimmy Howard but couldn’t beat him, the Caps lifted Neuvirth for the extra skater with about 50 seconds left. With seven ticks left, John Carlson fed Ovechkin at the left point, and Ovi blasted a slap shot that beat Howard stick side to knot the game at three.

Washington Capitals Game 44 Recap: Capitals drop Leafs 3-2, Neuvirth solid in first start since injury

Photo credit: Monumental Network

Photo credit: Monumental Network

Adam Oates places a lot of importance on the Washington Capitals playing “correct” hockey. Early in his tenure as Capitals coach, he remarked that he’d rather see his team play the right way and lose rather than play the wrong way and win. The last several games, the Capitals had been playing decent hockey, but were still having a hard time winning games. Frustrating, to be sure. Friday night against the Toronto Maple Leafs, the correct hockey that the Capitals have been playing paid off with another regulation win, the second in as many nights, a 3-2 decision over the struggling Leafs.

“We’ve been waiting for wins for a bit now; we lost four in a row before yesterday against Tampa. We need to put together a couple of wins in a row, that’s what we are hoping,” said Nicklas Backstrom, who has points in four consecutive games. “We got to play the same way. We need those wins, especially during this time of the year. It is important. It’s going to be hard to catch up if you’re not in the top there.”

Backstrom, Alex Ovechkin, and Joel Ward all contributed goals in the 3-2 win. Mikhail Grabovski notched an assist against his former team.

Since switching up the top two lines two games ago, Adam Oates is pleased with the results so far. “They are clicking a little bit which is good – chemistry,” he said.

“It affects the other team’s matchups, who they put on who. Through the course of the game it is nice to have more options where you feel comfortable we’re going to get goals. I thought the top three lines have done a good job.”

Michal Neuvirth got his first start since November 22, 2013 and stopped 32 of 34 shots in the win. The two Leafs shots that did get through were tipped, so there wasn’t much the goaltender could do in that instance.

“I just told myself ‘it’s just another game.’ I’ve been playing in this league for some time, and I was confident,” said Neuvirth.

“It’s an unbelievable feeling right now,” he continued. “ I am pretty happy with the win, I have been watching a lot of hockey from the press box and also studying other goalies and at practice [the coaches] helped me to stay in shape and it paid off tonight.”

“I thought he played a great game, I really did,” said Oates.

“First period I think he had some shots that allowed him to get into the game, which is good for him. After the second goal he made a fantastic save that saved the game for us.”

Washington Capitals Game 23 Recap: Capitals fall 3-2 to Montreal

After a lousy all-around showing against the Pittsburgh Penguins Wednesday night, the Washington Capitals needed to bounce back, and hoped to do so against the Montreal Canadiens before setting off for Toronto on Saturday. The Capitals surged late in the game, but fell to Montreal, 3-2.

Before the end of the 1st period, the Capitals once again found themselves at a multi-goal deficit. Down 3-0 on the scoreboard, it looked like a repeat of the thrashing by the Penguins.

Marcus Johansson drew a cross-checking penalty on Alexei Emelin, giving the Caps a power play with less than two minutes to go in the first period. Alex Ovechkin scored his 18th goal of the season just before the power play expired, a wrist shot assisted by John Carlson and Troy Brouwer.

Neither team scored in the second period. Aaron Volpatti, Nicklas Backstrom, Troy Brouwer, and Brooks Laich all had quality scoring chances, but weren’t able to get anything through Canadiens goalie Peter Budaj.

The Capitals looked like a different team in the third, thanks to a late surge that led to an Ovechkin goal, a deflection from Carlson’s point shot, to make the score 3-2, but were unable to complete the comeback.

The Capitals once again struggled to stay out of the penalty box, giving Montreal five power plays. There were a few calls that were arguably questionable, but good teams are able to rebound from the disadvantage and not dwell on supposed injustices.

““We waited until about 18 or 19 minutes left in the first period to look like we had some jump,” said Brouwer.

“We spotted them a three goal lead,and things that we’re trying to avoid, turnovers on the first [goal] and taking penalties on the third [goal]. The second [goal] was a tough call, but that’s how it goes. We have to have better starts. We can’t expect to win games if we’re down 3-0.”

Michal Neuvirth, got the start over Braden Holtby, and though he was shelled throughout most of the game, was superb aside from allowing three goals in the first period.

“[Neuvirth] made some great saves in the second period, gave us a chance,” said Oates. “[The Canadiens] are up 3 and miss that open net, and then we score one at the end of the period, so that gives us a little life. He played well after that and he gave us a chance, stopped some [shots].”

Ovechkin has scored six goals in his last five games, and 19 on the season.

Washington Capitals Game 14 Recap: It takes a shootout, but Caps down Florida 3-2

Playing without captain and leading scorer Alex Ovechkin for the second night in a row due to an upper body injury, the Washingt0n Capitals got a solid effort from goalie Michal Neuvirth and goals from Nick Backstrom and John Carlson — his first of the season — to force overtime and a shootout, where all three Caps shooters scored to take two points from former Southeast Division foe Florida Panthers. The resulting 3-2 win evens the Caps record at 7-7-0, good for third place in their new digs, the Metropolitan Division, with 14 points.

Neuvirth, starting in place of Braden Holtby, who played Friday night and went around with noted pugilist Ray Emery, saved 33 of the 35 shots sent his way, including 19 of 20 at even strength.  He allowed a goal to the first shooter in the skills competition, Aleksander Barkov, but denied Jonathan Huberdeau, which led to Nick Backstrom sealing the deal on the next shot.

Washington broke out on top in the first period with the refigured first line of Backstrom, Eric Fehr and Martin Erat. The Caps made an easy transition off a defensive zone faceoff through the neutral zone and into Panthers territory. Fehr brought the puck across the blue line and seemed to fumble it as he made his way into the slot.

But Backstrom alertly corralled the puck and whipped it past a seemingly stunned Scott Clemmensen for his fifth goal of the season, and third in the two games that Ovechkin has been absent.

In the second period, a very poor pass from Brooks Laich, who was covering the left point after Alexander Urbom pinched in on a play, led to Scottie Upshall springing Jesse Winchester on a breakaway. Despite Laich hooking Winchester the last 40 feet of the sprint, the Florida forward got enough on the shot to beat Neuvirth five-hole.

But just 36 seconds later, John Carlson took a nifty feed by Michael Latta on a controlled break and roofed it over Clemmensen’s right shoulder to give the Caps a 2-1 lead after two.

Midway through the third, the Caps had an extended offensive possession on the power play with several good chances, including Mike Green ringing one off the post, but could not get a shot to fall.

But former Caps have a way of haunting the current squad, and Saturday night would be no different. Old friend Tomas Fleischmann tied things up with just 2:38 remaining as the Panthers skated on a 4-on-3.

The power play goal against breaks the Caps streak of 35 consecutive penalty kills.

Despite the Caps getting a power play in the overtime, the extra session ended scoreless. Mikhail Grabovski led off for the Caps in the shootout and made a beautiful move, carrying in on his forehand, then faking a slap shot before slipping it to his backhand and getting the puck just out of the reach of Clemmensen.

Barkov used almost the exact same move against Neuvirth at the other end to even things up.

Brooks Laich was up next, and through he faked himself out — he missed the puck with his last attempt at a deke — the puck eluded Clemmensen five-hole. With the goal, Laich moves to 6-for-18 (33.3%) career in the shootout.

Neuvirth then made a glove save on second-year center Jonathan Huberdeau to set up Backstrom’s dramatic game-winner. Backstrom came in forehand all the way and simply beat Clemmensen without any trickery whatsoever to deliver the extra point to the Capitals.

The Caps have won 18 of the last 23 meetings with the Panthers.

Washington is off until Tuesday night, when they host the New York Islanders at 7:00 pm.

Caps Quick Take: Game 12 vs. Canucks

The Caps, playing the last of four straight games in western Canada, looked it last night. They were dominated possession-wise by the Vancouver Canucks and lost 3-2, in a score not as close as it would indicate. The Caps were outshot 41-19, and the total shots were even worse: 68-42. Alex Ovechkin, who’s on pace for a record number of shots on goal this season, managed just three, despite the Caps having four power plays (and going 0-for-4).

1) Watching these two teams, it was painfully obvious just how poor the Caps defensemen are at clearing their own zone. They aren’t particularly fast, and their breakout passes aren’t particularly accurate. That leads to getting bogged down in the neutral zone and turnovers. It’s magnified when they play a team like Vancouver (or, Vancouver themselves) since the Canucks are so crisp and such good skaters in their own end. John Carlson really should be better than he is at this stage in his career. [Read more...]

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