A Fan of the Game

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Guest Column: NHL First-Round Predictions

Nathan Skytta is back again — this time with predictions for the first round of the NHL playoffs.

For the first time in almost 20 years, the Detroit Red Wings will not start their run towards the Stanley Cup at home in front of the fans at Joe Louis Arena. In a season that was plagued with injuries, featured a rookie between the pipes, and contained league diversity with no real powerhouse, the Wings struggled out of the gates.

Led by gold medal winning head coach Mike Babcock and a plethora of skill and determination, the Wings overcame their injuries and got their lineup back together. Oh and that rookie in net? Well, he turned out to be a possible rookie of the year finalist.

The Wings finished fifth in the conference and are going to take on the fourth-seeded Phoenix Coyotes, in the first round of the playoffs. The Coyotes will put up a challenge for the Wings, but after finishing the season as one of the hottest teams in the league, the Wings should be favored in advance.

RED WINGS IN SIX.

In another matchup in the Western Conference, it’s the No. 1 San Jose Sharks versus No. 8 Colorado Avalanche — a matchup that will be worth watching. The Sharks barely missed having to face Detroit, but the road to the second round didn’t get any easier when they were paired up against the Avs. The Sharks need to be on their ‘A’ game in order to have any chance of advancing.

SHARKS IN SIX.

The No. 2 Chicago Blackhawks will take on the No. 7 Nashville Predators. This may be the highest scoring series out of the eight first round playoffs because each team has struggling goaltenders and stars that can put up big numbers when given the chance.

PREDATORS IN SIX.

In the last Western series, it will be the No. 3 Vancouver Canucks facing off against one of the scariest teams in the league, the No. 6 Los Angeles Kings. Both of these teams have great goaltending, but it will be the matchup of the Kings defense against the all-star duo of the Sedin twins that determines who comes out victorious.

The Kings are the Cinderella team of the NHL this season and are unpredictable, so this series is one worth watching.

KINGS IN SEVEN.

In the Eastern Conference, it’s the President’s Trophy winning Washington Capitals versus the Montreal Canadiens. This matchup pits Capitals starting goaltender Jose Theodore against his former mates from Montreal.  The Capitals have too much firepower for the Canadiens and should win this series convincingly.

CAPITALS IN FIVE.

Future Hall of Fame goaltender Martin Brodeur will lead his No. 2 New Jersey Devils against the No. 7 Philadelphia Flyers, in hopes of clinching another Stanley Cup title. This is the time of year where Brodeur seems to always step up his game — just what any team wants to hear when facing the goaltender with the most wins in NHL history.

DEVILS IN FIVE.

Silver medal-winning goaltender Ryan Miller and his Buffalo Sabres face the Boston Bruins and their rookie goaltender Tuukka Rask. The Bruins are going to have a challenge beating Miller and his teammates, so the Sabres should easily win this series, but at this time of year, anything is possible.

SABRES IN SEVEN.

Last but not least, it’s the No. 4 Pittsburgh Penguins versus the No. 5 Ottawa Senators. Both teams struggled down the stretch, but the reigning Stanley Cup Champion Penguins should advance. Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin should lead the charge against the Senators, who lost their star Alex Kovalev to a torn anterior cruciate ligament this past week. The Senators have a challenge ahead of them, but hopefully they can make it an interesting series.

PENGUINS IN FIVE.

Anything can happen in the first round of the NHL playoffs, so tune in and see some of the exciting hockey that the last 16 teams in the league have to offer. Versus and NBC will have all the coverage starting Wed., April 14.

–Nathan

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April 14, 2010 Posted by | Hockey | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

My NHL Playoffs Preview

It’s that time of year again for 16 teams to lace up the skates and compete for the most coveted trophy in sports: the Stanley Cup. No postseason compares to the NHL playoffs — the speed, the excitement, the will to win it all.

The Eastern Conference features a lot of the same faces this time around like Pittsburgh, New Jersey and Washington. The Western Conference showcases some fresh faces with Phoenix, Los Angeles and Colorado. Pittsburgh and Detroit have faced off in the Finals the last two years, and a three-peat isn’t quite out of the question. Series by series, here are the matchups and predictions.

EASTERN CONFERENCE

No. 1 Washington vs. No. 8 Montreal

The Capitals put up 121 points and 54 wins this season and are bulldozing through their opponents. If Alexander Ovechkin didn’t miss time from injuries and suspensions, he would probably have won the races for goals and total points. But this team is going to need a goalie to lead them to the promise land. On the heels of a stellar comeback-type season, goalie Jose Theodore will get an easy first matchup against Montreal. Montreal will wish they had never made the playoffs.

WASHINGTON IN FOUR.

No. 2 New Jersey vs. No. 7 Philadelphia

Has there been a more confusing team this year than the Flyers? Pegged by many to reach the Stanley Cup Finals, they’ve been in disarray throughout the season. Starting goalie Ray Emery didn’t pan out and ended up injured and out for the season. Captain Mike Richards is going to need to put the team on his shoulders once again. And it’s no surprise the Devils are here. Last season, the Devils were ousted by an upstart Carolina team, but it’s hard to see that happening again. It will be a tough series, though.

NEW JERSEY IN SEVEN.

No. 3 Buffalo vs. No. 6 Boston

It’s hard to believe it was just last year when Boston made it to the Conference Finals. Since then, they traded Phil Kessel and lost Marc Savard to injury, which put their offense in a serious grind. It didn’t help goalie Tim Thomas struggled mightily, but now they have 23-year-old Tuukka Rask who suffocated opponents with a 1.97 goals against average and a .931 save percentage. The goalie on the other side is no slouch either — USA starter Ryan Miller. This series comes down to whom can put the puck in the net. Buffalo has 12 players with 10 goals or more, and Boston’s leading goal-scorer has just 22.

BUFFALO IN SIX.

No. 4 Pittsburgh vs. No. 5 Ottawa

The defending Stanley Cup Champion Penguins find themselves facing a somewhat surprising Ottawa team. With all the talent Pittsburgh has, it’s a mystery as to why they never compete for a top seed. But the regular season doesn’t matter anymore, of course. This is where the Penguins excel having been to the Stanley Cup Finals two years in a row. The Senators were already overmatched, and now after losing Alexei Kovalev for the year from a torn anterior cruciate ligament, the Sens are the dead horse preparing to be beaten.

PITTSBURGH IN FIVE.

WESTERN CONFERENCE

No. 1 San Jose vs. No. 8 Colorado

If there’s any NHL topic that’s been exhausted, it’s the playoff woes of the Sharks. They dodged a bullet in not having to face a red-hot Detroit team. The Sharks shouldn’t have any problem taking out the Avalanche early. The Avs haven’t played well since the Olympic break, goalie Craig Anderson’s massive workload has caught up to him, and key players Peter Mueller and Matt Duchene are recovering from injuries. With that being said, the Sharks still don’t have the confidence to sweep a team in the playoffs or beat them in five games. San Jose will take the series, but not without shooting themselves in the foot a couple times.

SAN JOSE IN SIX.

No. 2 Chicago vs. No. 7 Nashville

This could get ugly really fast. Chicago must be disappointed with blowing a golden opportunity in the last game of the season against Detroit. If they won, it would have meant a number one seed and home ice advantage throughout the Western Conference playoffs. That puts Nashville right in the crosshairs of an angry team led by seemingly-always disgruntled coach Joel Quenneville. The Predators have heart, though, and they never quit. Despite the high probability of being skinned alive, Nashville will give it all they have.

CHICAGO IN FIVE.

No. 3 Vancouver vs. No. 6 Los Angeles

Of the eight Western Conference playoff teams, only Vancouver has a losing record away from their building. This gives the Kings a chance to pull off maybe the only upset of the first round. Los Angeles has a young core of players similar to what Chicago has. The Kings have players like Dustin Brown, Drew Doughty and Anze Kopitar that can keep them a playoff threat for many years to come. For Vancouver, it’s all about goalie Roberto Luongo and twins Daniel and Henrik Sedin. If you stop the Sedins, you’ll win. It’s a simple concept, but few teams can accomplish it.

LOS ANGELES IN SEVEN.

No. 4 Phoenix vs. No. 5 Detroit

Contrary to popular belief, this isn’t a typo. The Coyotes really are in the playoffs and a fourth seed no less. They shocked the hockey world after being in fire and brimstone the last several years. Ownership questions, gambling scandals and relocation considerations bogged down this franchise. But with new coach Dave Tippett, Phoenix got revitalized and finished with 50 wins and 107 points. Their reward? The hottest team since the Olympic break. Near the midpoint of the season, the Red Wings were out of the playoffs dealing with a stockpile of injuries. But they’re back to Stanley Cup form and are once again dangerous. The Western Conference can only hope Phoenix can pull a miracle and oust Detroit. But let’s be real. This is Detroit and these are the playoffs.

DETROIT IN SIX.

–Ray

April 14, 2010 Posted by | Hockey | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Inside the Shark Cage, Vol. 42

Quite the retribution game for the Sharks as the demolished the Washington Capitals 5-2. Three Sharks missed the first meeting between these two teams — Joe Pavelski, Douglas Murray and Torrey Mitchell. All of them made a huge impact on the game.

Joe Pavelski used his insanely accurate shot to score twice and Douglas Murray shut down Alex Ovechkin for most of the game although OV scored at the end. Mitchell notched his first goal of the season in the first period.

Ovechkin became frustrated in the third trying to drop the gloves with Dan Boyle and getting into it with Murray. That just means the Sharks’ gameplan worked amazingly.

Some Sharks fans were booing Ovechkin every time he touched the puck. I have no clue what that was about; he isn’t Chris Pronger; he hasn’t cheap-shotted any Sharks before; there’s no bad blood. It really disappointed me that some of the Sharks fans did that. Now if they booed Crosby, that would be completely different!

What was odd tonight was the Sharks received two penalty shot opportunities and buried both of them. Ryane Clowe took the first one in the second and used his patented forehand-backhand move to beat young goalie Michal Neuvirth.

Get up man. This is no place for a Playboy pose. (From SJSHARKS.com)

Joe Thornton converted the second chance in the third to seal the game.

The turning point in tonight’s game, though, came at the start of the second period. The Caps got a quick five-on-three chance followed by another power-play, but the Sharks’ penalty kill stifled Washington.

The Sharks are showing no signs of slowing down. They’ve brought their A-game throughout the holidays, and this marks the sixth straight victory.

He Said What?

Capitals analyst Craig Laughlin said Dan Boyle was just a tad bit better than Caps defenseman Mike Green. Yea, right. Boyle is astronomically better.

Stat Central

The Sharks haven’t allowed a first-period goal in seven straight games.

Other Notes

Hit-O-Meter: SJ 32  WSH 46; Murray led the team with four.

The Sharks have to turn around quickly and play an early game tomorrow versus Phoenix.

–Ray

December 31, 2009 Posted by | Hockey | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Inside the Shark Cage, Vol. 10

Quite the flashes-of-competence performance by the Sharks in their 4-1 win over the New York Islanders. It was the Sharks’ third 4-1 game of the year already; they’ve won two of three. The game wasn’t very pretty — the good play was spotty, but when they did play well, they scored.

The whole first period looked like the Washington game. San Jose looked lost and uninterested. Perhaps getting dominated by the Islanders (who haven’t won a game yet) woke them up during intermission. Sharks goalie Evgeni Nabokov, playing in his 500th game, played amazing in the first. He was the sole reason the Sharks were still in the game and he deserves a lot of credit for his stellar play so far.

The second period allowed Sharks fans to see more sustained pressure and a better forecheck. There were less one-and-done forechecks, as analyst Drew Remenda put it. That’s been the main problem I’ve noticed — the Sharks take a shot but can’t find the rebound or keep the pressure.

The power play looked solid as the Sharks pocketed two goals on the man-advantage. Patrick Marleau got on the board with a nifty backhand shot from the slot past goalie Martin Biron. Guess who scored next?

Ryan Vesce (#53) celebrates his first NHL goal (From SJSHARKS.com)

Ryan Vesce (#53) celebrates his first NHL goal (From SJSHARKS.com)

Ryan Vesce! The man I suggested the Sharks call up, and while I obviously had nothing to do with it, it was nice to see my suggestion come up and score — not to mention it was his first NHL goal. Congratulations to Vesce. He’s such a hard worker and a lot of Sharks veterans could learn from him. I hope he stays up for a long time.

The third period showcased the Sharks best play. Joe Thornton actually took a shot and it went in. I guess he wanted more than the two assists he already had so far.

Devin Setoguchi scored late in the game on a nice solo effort from down low. Seto might have been the hardest working Shark of the night. He was flying around on the ice. Why? He was demoted to the second line, consisting of Ryane Clowe and Patrick Marleau. Maybe that sparked something.

Ryane Clowe

Clowe notched his first point of the year, finally, on Seto’s goal. Clowe also fought Tim Jackman: Clowe took care of him fairly easily. I think Clowe needs to be demoted to the third line. It worked for Seto; it might work for Clowe. Putting him with Scott Nichol and Benn Ferriero/Jed Ortmeyer could help his work ethic. Those guys never quit and don’t get down on themselves. Clowe is struggling mentally and needs a change of scenery.

Other Notes

Hit-o-meter: SJ 19  NYI 14

The Islanders outshot the Sharks 32-29, but the Islanders blocked 24 shots. New York also got a majority of their shots in the first period when they had 19.

The Sharks now face the Rangers, Monday. San Jose has only won two in a row once this year, so I’ll be expecting another bad performance. That’s the Sharks — win-loss-win-loss. Very annoying. But, here’s to change.

–Ray

October 19, 2009 Posted by | Hockey | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Inside the Shark Cage, Vol. 9

Quite the lackadaisical performance by the Sharks in their 4-1 loss to the Washington Capitals. The Sharks hadn’t lost to the Caps since Feb. 20, 1999, but this new lethargic team ended that streak tonight. It’s the first game this season where not one player showed any sort of spark or effort. It was disheartening. It’d be nice to have a media member ask all the Sharks where their heads our at. But I guarantee they all would say, “I think the effort was there, we just weren’t executing.” Yea right, let’s get real. Maybe Dan Boyle would be honest; he usually is, but that canned answer is what you would get.

Before I continue, let me just explain how I am. Many Sharks fans will point out that it’s just the beginning of the season and they’re still trying to find chemistry.

Sorry, but I’m not like that. I’m not patient at all. And contrary to popular belief, these games mean the same as ones in March. I’ll let you be patient, but allow me the luxury of being impatient.

Anyway, the first period was difficult to watch. San Jose took five penalties during the frame, and were slow. Luckily, the Caps only converted once on a 5 on 3, and the Sharks escaped. Benn Ferriero knotted it up at the end of the first on a nice passing play — that would be the last string of tape-to-tape passes in the game.

Alex Ovechkin scores his second goal in 28 seconds

Alex Ovechkin scores his second goal in 28 seconds (From SJSHARKS.com)

Alex Ovechkin scored two goals in 28 seconds, in the second stanza — his first goals against the Sharks ever. The Sharks lost any sort of mental sturdiness after that sequence; there was to be no magic comeback like there was against the Los Angeles Kings.

The board play was terrible. Sharks players randomly kicked the puck from the halfboards to empty space or Caps players. The offense was non-existent. Players dumped it in with no teammates showing any intention of recovering it. I remember one instance in particular that summed it up: Joe Thornton came down the left side, dumped it in, the puck went around the back of the net, Caps player tied up a Sharks player, and the puck (still rolling from Joe’s dump) went to Brooks Laich, who started a Caps breakout.

I can’t think of a word for the defense. Let’s just keep it simple: bad. Kent Huskins wins dunce of the night for being Kent Huskins. It’s time to bring up Nick Petrecki. Cut the Derek Joslin trash. He is going nowhere in this league, but Petrecki is.

It’s also time to bring up Logan Couture or Ryan Vesce. As much as I like the tough guys, they aren’t doing anything important.

Manny Malhotra is an absolute joke. He has done nothing at all. Time to fish or cut bait, and I’m liking the latter right now. He doesn’t have any skills, so I have no clue how he made the team. Get him out of San Jose, ASAP.

Other Notes

Wish I had some. The Sharks stunk.

I will say if this keeps up, the Sharks are going 0-6 on this road trip. There were no signs tonight of anything positive to make me think otherwise. The Sharks need an 8-0 loss; maybe then they’ll wake up.

–Ray

October 16, 2009 Posted by | Hockey | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Inside the Shark Cage, Vol. 8

Quite the humdrum performance by both teams in the Coyotes 1-0 shootout win over the Sharks. The Sharks were slapdash throughout the contest not stringing together two passes more often than not. The whole game was a giant hodge-podge. The Coyotes faired no better, and their style of play made for a top-5 contender for most boring game of the year. I really do hate Dave Tippet’s (Coyotes head coach) style of play. I can’t stand the trap — so dull; so monotonous. But Phoenix won with their tedious, mind-numbing play.

At least San Jose got a point.

The Sharks could have used to Drain-O to unclog the neutral zone, because that’s where all the Phoenix players were the entire game. San Jose tried to execute some dump-and-chase plays to get behind Phoenix, but they were always one step ahead of the Sharks.

I’d had to give the MVP to Sharks goalie Evgeni Nabokov. He kept the game 0-0 and made so many spectacular saves — much more crucial saves than Coyotes goalie Ilya Bryzgalov. Phoenix’s shots were more potent and in open ice, while the Shark’s shots were just kind of “blah, here’s a shot, maybe something will happen.”

Scott Nichol and Jamie McGinn were the best players on the ice. They threw their body around and Nichol’s speed and determination were evident every time he stepped out on the ice. I thought the signing of Nichol was suspect, but he’s proven me wrong so far. Nichol had seven hits in the game and was 64% in the faceoff circle. Excellent stuff.

Once overtime hit triple zeroes, I knew the game would end in a Sharks loss. Nabby is so bad in breakaway situations — it’s nauseating. He’s now 13-16 in shootouts I believe. Yikes.

Sharks Goalie Evgeni Nabkov looks for the puck (From SJSHARKS.com)

Sharks Goalie Evgeni Nabkov looks for the puck (From SJSHARKS.com)

The Sharks could have really used Joe Pavelski’s amazing shootout skills, as well as Jeremy Roenick’s shootout prowess, but hey, at least they sent out Dany Heatley, Devin Setoguchi and Dan Boyle.

*Cue record scratching sound* Wait, what?

Heatley is awful in shootouts; Setoguchi has only scored one shootout goal; Boyle is 2 for 8. Why did you pick them Todd (McClellan)? Heatley shot the puck into Bryzgalov’s pads, Setoguchi shot it wide, but Boyle did make it. In fact, Boyle looked like an all-star forward with his forehand-backhand move.

The Sharks get a point, though, before heading out to their Eastern Conference road trip. They’re now 3-2-1.

Fight

Jody Shelley continued his punching bag status — this time getting beat up by Paul Bissonnette. It’s getting really old now. Shelley chooses the right time for a fight but doesn’t finish what he started.

Other Notes

Frazer McLaren was sent down to Worcester before the game and Steven Zalewski was called up. It was Zalewski’s first NHL game, but unfortunately for him, he only played five minutes.

The Sharks outhit the Coyotes 31-18 and and dominated the faceoff circle going 35-19.

Next game: At Washington, 7 ET. The Sharks better pick up the speed if they want to skate with the Caps and Alex Ovechkin.

–Ray

October 13, 2009 Posted by | Hockey | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

NHL Power Rankings

1. San Jose Sharks 13-3-0
Entering Nov. 11, the Sharks boast the NHL’s loan undefeated record at home (9-0). The “Shark Tank” as fans call it, has been a dead zone for opposing teams as well as an imminent loss. Under the new coaching regime, the Sharks offense is reaching is potential, with the most goals for in the league. The defense has stepped up with the offseason acquisitions of Rob Blake and Dan Boyle, providing leadership and guidance for the Sharks fairly young defense. Most importantly, San Jose has shown character in being able to come back in games in which they trail, something absent the last few years.

2. Detroit Red Wings 9-2-2
The defending Stanley Cup Champs find themselves at number two in the power rankings. Marian Hossa has been exactly what they expected, netting 8 goals and adding 9 assists, in only 13 games played. Detroit is still playing as advertised, with a tough defense led by Niklas Lidstrom and Brian Rafalski. Goalie Chris Osgood has split time with backup with Ty Conklin and neither has put up stellar numbers, making it difficult on Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk, the Wings offensive juggernauts. Both carry the Wings offense again this year, although Datsyuk has only put in 3 goals. With right-winger Johan Franzen coming off injury, Detroit is going to start spreading the wealth.

3. New York Rangers 11-5-2
After 18 games played, no one would think that youngster Nikolai Zherdev would lead the team in points, but that is just the case with 5 goals and 9 assists. Markus Naslund, a big free agent signee, has been doing his part with 5 goals and 8 assists. With the exception of a hat trick last week, center Chris Drury has been struggling. Scott Gomez has had problems with finding the net, only scoring 3 goals thus far. Drury and Gomez are key to the team’s success. They have to improve, but with a goalie like Henrik Lundqvist and his 1.99 goals against average, the Rangers will be in every game.

4. Montreal Canadiens 8-2-2
Left wing Alex Tanguay leads the team in points with 14, along with defenseman Andrei Markov. Montreal is fourth in the league in the goals per game category with 3.42. With the combination of that offense and goalie Carey Price, the Canadiens are a very dangerous team. Price has a 2.61 GAA and .917 save percentage, keeping games close. The problem the Canadiens have is on defense. With the exception of Markov, not many defenseman are contributing. Roman Hamrlik has 5 points, but the rest have 2 points or less. The offense will not be able to carry the team the whole season. The defense must get involved if Montreal expects to win the tough Northeast division.

5. Boston Bruins 8-3-3
Archrival Montreal got the nod over Boston because of their head-to-head matchup earlier in the season, a shootout victory for the Canadiens. Boston has been a very formidable opponent and the record shows that. On average, the Bruins get outshot every game, but goalie Tim Thomas has been exceptional, boasting a 1.85 GAA and two shutouts. For the offense, Marc Savard is the unquestioned leader of the team with 16 points. The next best offenseman has only 9 points. Savard is also second on the team in penalty minutes, putting added pressure on the penalty kill unit. With Savard being off the ice constantly, more players have to step up if the Bruins are to legitimately challenge Montreal.

6. Buffalo Sabres 8-3-3
Buffalo has one of the best penalty kill units in the game, which helps them cover their own mistakes. Along with doing that, goalie Ryan Miller has a GAA just over 2. Buffalo is a team that just gets it done and they score when they have to. Their records at home and away are virtually identical making them a team to bet on every night.

7. Washington Capitals 8-4-2
It’s been a breakout year for Alexander Semin so far, leading the league in points with 22 (11G 11A). Alex Ovechkin has been an assist man this year, with 7 helpers and only 3 goals. It’s safe to say an Alex is going to score every night the Caps play.

8. Chicago Blackhawks 7-3-3
Captain Jonathan Toews has been having a tough time lately, with only 1 goal in 13 games played. Patrick Kane has picked up the slack, however, leading the team with 18 points (7G 11A). The problem for Chicago is goaltending. Nikolai Khabibulin has started seven games and Cristobal Huet has started six. Rumors are swirling that Khabibulin could be traded at any time, but with a 7-3-3 record, it doesn’t look like it is much of a distraction.

9. Pittsburgh Penguins 8-4-2
Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin only have a combined 7 goals, yet lead the team in points. How is that possible? Both have a staggering number of assists. Malkin has 18 assists on the year, and Crosby has 13. As good as it is to see both helping their teammates, Malkin and Crosby need to start being more selfish and put the puck in the net if Pittsburgh wants to get better.

10. Anaheim Ducks 9-7-1
After such a terrible start, Anaheim has climbed back into the hunt for the Pacific division and the Western Conference. Over the last ten games, the Ducks are 7-2-1, making them one of the hottest teams in the league right now. A troubling stat, though, is they have more goals against, then for. They better get that straightened out quickly.

November 11, 2008 Posted by | Hockey | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment