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December 16, 2015
by Jonathan Bombulie


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Boston pregame

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The sheer number of changes in the Penguins organization in the last few days has been staggering, and the hits kept on coming Wednesday morning in Boston.

Nick Bonino was absent from morning skate due to illness. Coach Mike Sullivan said he’ll be a game-time decision.

Bonino’s absence plus the arrival of Trevor Daley from Chicago and Conor Sheary, Kevin Porter and Matt Murray from Wilkes-Barre prompted further shuffling to a lineup that was already shuffled yesterday.

There was plenty of rotation going on this morning, especially on D, but I expect the lineup to look something like this tonight if Bonino can’t go:

Kunitz-Crosby-Perron
Plotnikov-Malkin-Kessel
Sheary-Fehr-Hornqvist
Porter-Cullen-Sprong

Maatta-Daley
Dumoulin-Lovejoy
Cole-Warsofsky

Two takeaways there. First, Kessel practiced on the left wing on a line with Fehr and Sprong yesterday. That line seemed a little too weird from the get-go. I’m not sure it was ever destined to see the light of day in a game. Might have been a practice thing until the call-ups could arrive. Second, Fehr will be playing center, really, for the first time this season. He had success there in Washington last year.

The power-play units were also different than yesterday.

The first group was the same, with Malkin at the center point, Crosby on the left wall, Warsofsky on the right wall, Kunitz in the high slot and Perron at the net.

The second group was different with newcomers added. Daley worked the center point at morning skate and looked great, by the way. Low, hard shot. Kessel was on the left wall, Maatta on the right, Sheary in the high slot and Hornqvist at the net.

Giving a call-up like Sheary a spot on the power play shows that Sullivan thought highly of him while they were in Wilkes-Barre together at the start of the season.

Anyway, here’s Sullivan’s take on all the changes:

“As far how we’re trying to play, I don’t think we have to make changes,” Sullivan said. “It’s more about trying to define what it means to play the right way, and that’s what we’ve been trying to do since I’ve been here, for the last couple days, try to do my best to share my thoughts on what it means to play the right way. We’ve made a few adjustments as far as tactically how we’re playing, but for me, that’s not the most important thing.”

In goal, meanwhile, Jeff Zatkoff is scheduled to start tonight as Marc-Andre Fleury will miss at least 10 days with a concussion.

Many goalies don’t like to talk to reporters on game day. Zatkoff isn’t one of them. He noted that the Penguins are beginning a stretch of four games in six days.

“Going into the schedule to begin with, I knew that it was a busy schedule and I was probably going to get a game or two. It doesn’t change anything,” Zatkoff said. “I’m excited to get back in there, an opportunity to play, and give the team a chance to win. It starts tonight. Gotta big match with Boston. Should be a fun game. I know guys are definitely ready to go.”

More after the game tonight. Bye for now,

jb

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December 15, 2015
by Jonathan Bombulie


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Washington postgame

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Two big topics tonight in a two-week span that hasn’t lacked in big topics for the Penguins — the trade of Rob Scuderi to Chicago for Trevor Daley and the debut of Mike Sullivan behind the bench. Let’s start with Sullivan.

Did you like what you saw from him tonight?

You didn’t like the final score, of course, a 4-1 loss to the Washington Capitals, but other than that, as far as style of play, did you like what you saw?

It was more aggressive in a lot of ways, on the forecheck and in the defensive zone. The possession numbers were positive. There were mistakes, of course, plenty of them, but I thought they were largely mistakes of aggression, and the Capitals capitalized on them, especially early.

That aggression might end up being Sullivan’s calling card. Check out what David Perron had to say about his coach’s demeanor during the game.

“I thought the management of the bench was unbelievable,” Perron said. “Even when we went down, the guy was crazy. He kept everyone in it. It was good. The energy was there from before the game in his speeches and throughout the game, it carried over.”

“The guy was crazy.” Judging by my Twitter feed, people used to say this about the old coach all the time too, but in a completely different context.

Anyway, another quote from Perron is also telling. I asked him what he thought about racking up 45 shots, a season high, but only one goal.

“It’s the story of the year so far,” Perron said. “We’ve got to be more determined. I think it’s stuff that we can maybe work at practice. We’ll learn and see what he’s going to do with that. He has to find a way to make us score more goals in practice to begin with. More determination. One-on-one battles. For us, as a line, I thought we had a lot more cycles. I felt like in other games, it was one and done. We were having a little bit of success that way, but I think we can take that to another level.”

The Penguins don’t lack for scoring chances. The stats make that perfectly clear. What they lack is goals. Perron has a lot of faith that his new coach can change that. Can he? That’s going to be the $64,000 question going forward.

Now to the Scuderi trade.

To me, the big takeaway is this: When it comes to the defense corps in the Penguins organization, the old days are officially over.

Ulf Samuelsson isn’t walking through that door.

Clearing the crease and staying at home are out. Moving the puck and starting the breakout are in. I know that’s not news. We’ve seen this day coming for a while. But it’s here now, for sure.

The one thing I’ve always heard about Scuderi was that he has super-human pain tolerance. He played through horrific injuries that would have shelved most players for weeks. In his prime, that was a huge benefit to his teams, like, say, the ’09 Penguins for example.

But the game has changed so much since then. A tough-guy ethos is not valued. Possession is. Daley’s Corsi For percentage of 56.4 percent is the best among regular Chicago defensemen. He’s a bit undersized. He doesn’t play a physical game. But he can skate and move the puck. He scored 16 goals last year.

Given those facts, you’d have to think the Penguins are happy to be able to make this deal, even if they’re eating a third of Scuderi’s salary.

Given Sullivan’s debut and the Scuderi-for-Daley swap, it’s clear that things are changing around the Penguins these days. The course for the rest of the season has been set. Buy the ticket. Take the ride.

Four other quick notes before I go:

— Colleague Bill West just talked to Daley. Keep an eye on triblive.com for his comments. And for Pete’s sake, make sure you’re following @BWest_Trib on Twitter.

— Beau Bennett left with an apparent right shoulder injury when he was slammed into the boards by a T.J. Oshie hit in the first period. Sullivan wasn’t specific, but he said the team would be without Bennett for “a little while.” Take that to mean he’s not day-to-day.

I know Bennett has a long and checkered history, but this isn’t on him for being injury prone. Anyone would have been hurt by that hit. I actually thought it deserved a boarding call, just because of where the hit took place on the ice. Five feet from the boards is a dangerous spot.

— In discussing the Daley trade, GM Jim Rutherford said he’s done making roster changes for a while. He wants to give Sullivan and this group a chance to show what they can do before he reevaluates things.

— The exception to that, of course, would be a call-up to replace Bennett. Personally, I’d love to get a look at Dominik Simon. His hands have been NHL-caliber at WBS. Conor Sheary’s been tearing up the AHL too. Scott Wilson is a more conservative choice. Obviously, Sullivan has a handle on who is playing the best.

Bye for now,

jb

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December 14, 2015
by Jonathan Bombulie


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Washington pregame

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The Penguins practiced their power play under new coach Mike Sullivan for the first time today at morning skate.

It was just for a few minutes. The impression I get is that Sullivan wants to see what he’s working with before he makes changes, so the personnel remained the same and the 1-3-1 set-up remained the same.

He talked about his power-play philosophy afterwards. Bill West is working on an actual story about that today with, you know, actual journalism inside. As for me, I’ll just summarize Sullivan’s philosophy in two bullet points.

— With as much skill as the Penguins have on their top PP unit, there’s a tendency to try to make perfect plays. They have to fight that tendency. Shoot first, then worry about making highlight-reel plays after seams open up.

— Chasing pucks down the ice takes up time and energy. That’s why it’s so important to have a five-on-five, puck-hunting retrieval mentality in the offensive zone.

Those seem like perfectly fine points for Sullivan to stress to his team. It shows he realizes why they’ve been struggling so far this year. The trick, of course, just like it was for Mike Johnston and the others who came before him, is getting the players to actually believe it and put it into practice on the ice.

Some other pregame notes:

— There will be an opponent on the ice tonight. It’s easy to forget that given the hullabaloo of the last few days. A very good opponent too. Washington is 8-1-1 in its last 10. Not the world’s greatest debut opponent for a coach.

— The Caps don’t know much about what to expect from a Sullivan-coached team. This Washington Post story covers that fact. I think it’s interesting that Barry Trotz said he’d talk to some Hershey guys to learn about some of Sullivan’s tendencies that showed themselves while he was in Wilkes-Barre.

— My take on the Daniel Sprong situation: Jim Rutherford understands that a coach is going to be reluctant to play an 18-year-old that he doesn’t trust in the defensive zone. At worst, it was a minor disagreement between GM and coach about playing time. It was not a show of insubordination by Johnston. It did not break any camel’s back.

Its real significance was as an entry point for Rutherford to publicly show his displeasure with his coach’s performance. That was the big deal.

— I skipped over a David Warsofsky quote about Sullivan from yesterday that I found interesting.

“He’s very knowledgeable. I think he knows the game maybe better than anyone I’ve ever met. He has a good way of getting his point across, especially to some older guys and some professionals who might be stuck in their own ways. At every level he’s coached at, I think he can really get through to those guys on a professional level and always be respectful about it, but he always gets his word through.”

A guy like Warsofsky has to say nice things about his new coach. He wants to play, right? But he doesn’t have to go so far as to say he’s the greatest hockey mind he’s ever met. That struck me as a real compliment.

— I also skipped over a Ben Lovejoy quote yesterday that I found important.

“We had a meeting this morning where both Jim Rutherford and Mike Sullivan spoke and they both said this is on us. We need to be better as players. Mike Sullivan isn’t going to come out and correct things that have gone wrong by himself. He’s going to come in, put guys in the right position to succeed and we, as players, need to respond and make a big step forward and be better.”

This is interesting because Rutherford isn’t just sending a message that he expects better from his players. He’s actually coming out and saying it. It’s not a big difference, but it’s a difference.

Bye for now,

jb

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December 13, 2015
by Jonathan Bombulie


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What to expect from Mike Sullivan

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When Mike Johnston was hired to coach the Penguins, people thought they knew what style of play to expect. His Portland teams in the WHL scored a ton of goals, primarily by using their defensemen as an additional offensive option.

Aside from the first few weeks of last season, it didn’t end up looking like that on the ice.

With that in mind, I think it might be foolish to try to figure out what to expect in terms of style of play under Mike Sullivan.

Even if you try, it’s a pretty difficult riddle to figure out.

As a player, he was a defensive center. His first season as a head coach in Boston in 03-04, the Bruins won with defense. He was an assistant under John Tortorella for six years, and Tortorella has been alternately criticized for having too conservative a shot-blocking style and too risky an all-or-nothing philosophy. In Wilkes-Barre to start this year, Sullivan’s team was among the league leaders in both offense and defense.

What to make of all that? Sullivan would probably tell you his tactics change based on his personnel.

“I’ve always been a believer that you have to try to play to your strengths. When you’re handed a group of players, at least from my perspective, I try to look at it and say, ‘Well, what are our strengths as a group? And how do we play to those strengths so that we have a competitive advantage?’ I don’t think it’s any secret that the Pittsburgh Penguins are built around speed and skill. That has to be an element of our identity, as far as how we’re going to play.”

If that’s true, that’s probably good news for the Penguins and their fans. The strength of the Penguins is their skill. Much of Sullivan’s first practice as a coach Sunday was dedicated to cleaning up the breakout to get the puck to the team’s skilled forwards as crisply as possible. That will make for more entertaining hockey.

Some other observations today:

— Sullivan isn’t going to overhaul the team’s Xs and Os in a day. But there’s one thing I think you can look for tomorrow against the Capitals. Under Johnston, the Penguins would have two defensemen join a battle for a loose puck in the defensive zone, gain possession, then start the breakout from there. Under Sullivan, expect the second D in that situation to read and react. If his partner needs help, provide it. If not, be ready to move the puck.

–I also think there will be differences with the puck-side winger on the breakout. Under Johnston, he stayed low quite often. Under Sullivan, I think he’ll fly the zone the moment the Penguins gain possession. Just a little more aggressive approach.

— I think the forecheck might be a little more aggressive too. Under Johnston, the idea was to always have one guy attacking and one guy retreating to defend. Under Sullivan, the first forechecker will be aggressive. The second forechecker will read and react. If the situation calls for aggression, then aggression. If it calls for retreating, then retreat.

Bye for now,

jb

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December 13, 2015
by Bill West


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Sullivan = Laviolette?

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Among the many other things Penguins general manager Jim Rutherford said in regards to firing Mike Johnston and hiring Mike Sullivan as the head coach on Saturday, he likened the team’s new man in charge to another coach the Pittsburgh fan base might remember, albeit for dubious reasons.

“I do see (Sullivan) as a guy that’s really demanding and a take-control guy,” Rutherford said. “In some ways — I actually hate to do this, but it’s in my head now — he reminds me of a coach that I had a lot of success with, Peter Laviolette.”

Laviolette and Rutherford worked together with the Carolina Hurricanes. The former currently coaches Nashville. But Penguins fans probably know him best as the coach in Philadelphia from 2009-14.

During that span, this happened:

No such Youtube gold exists of Sullivan — I couldn’t find anything of that sort, anyway. But here’s a video delving into the man that the Canucks did in December of 2013.

Penguins and the media get to meet and greet with Sullivan this morning at practice. Stay tuned.

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December 12, 2015
by Bill West


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Penguins vs. Kings postgame

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After a four-game trip that took them to the West Coast and Colorado, the Penguins probably wanted something a little less exhausting in their first game back at Consol Energy Center than what transpired in Friday’s 3-2 shootout loss to Los Angeles.

Give credit to the Penguins for this much: They battled their way to a point in the standings against an opponent that planned to physically punish them into a state of exhaustion.

Evgeni Malkin, who finished with 10 shots, possesses a motor that seemingly few opposing defenders can match lately. The Kings targeted him with their pokes, pushes and punches (one or two, anyway) as much as any Penguins skater. Yet Malkin, undeterred, found his way to a loose rebound in the game’s final minute-plus and buried it to force overtime.

His night in a nutshell?

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December 12, 2015
by Bill West


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Penguins vs. Kings pregame primer

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Less than a week after Los Angeles rolled to a 5-3 win over the Penguins on the West Coast, the teams meet again Friday night at Consol Energy Center. And unfortunately for the hosts, they’re playing without their best puck-moving defenseman, Kris Letang, who is out with an upper-body injury he suffered in Wednesday’s win over Colorado.
“With the (defensive) pairs, we will maneuver them around a little bit tonight depending on our matchups,” coach Mike Johnston said. “But with Letang out, I think everybody knows, we’ll be missing Letang. It needs to be made up. … Getting out of your zone is really critical against a team like Los Angeles.”
After a scoreless first period on Dec. 5, the Kings built a 3-0 lead 10 minutes into the second. Sidney Crosby’s goal two minutes into the third cut Los Angeles’ lead to 4-3, but the Kings, league leaders in goals against, clamped down to close out the game.
Though they matched the Kings’ nine shots in the final period, the Penguins trailed, 28-11, in that category after two frames.
“We waited and we watched a little bit early in the game,” Johnston said. “The first seven or eight minutes, we were good. Then in the last half of the first period, I thought L.A. really took over at that time, right to the midpoint of the game. Then we started to push back. It was a little bit too late.
“They’re the type of team you’ve got to come after early. There’s going to be a real good battle early in the game. You can’t stand and watch because not only are their top two lines (strong), but they’ve got depth throughout the lineup.”
Here’s tonight’s lineup for the Penguins.

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December 10, 2015
by Bill West


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Pens vs. Avalanche, revisited: Dumoulin’s pass

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Beau Bennett scored twice last night in the Penguins’ 4-2 win over Colorado. Let’s revisit the moments that led up to his second goal.
A discussion of the Penguins’ best puck-moving defensemen tends to start with Kris Letang and quickly tail off from there. With Olli Maatta in and out of the lineup with health trouble over the past season-plus, the team’s choices of blue liners with offensive skills became alarmingly slim at times.
No fans will list Brian Dumoulin as a Letang in the making, and likely few even consider him an asset offensively.
The pass he made to Beau Bennett for the Penguins’ fourth goal Wednesday night against Colorado served as inspiration for me to at least peruse his numbers. And what I saw surprised me a bit.

His six assists tied him for fifth on the team and ranks second among the defensemen, behind Letang’s 13. Apparently decision-making that improved in the AHL the past two seasons, when Dumoulin’s assist total improved from 16 in 53 games to 29 in 62, didn’t completely fade as the 24 year old adjusted to a full-time spot in the NHL.
Granted, his individual possession metrics are less remarkable. Dumoulin and Ben Lovejoy have spent much of their time lately dealing with the opposition’s top forwards, though, so their 50.7 CF% and 66.7 GF% when together deserve some respect.
Dumoulin looked the part of a smart passer when he assisted Bennett’s goal Wednesday. He turned up ice quickly after gathering a loose puck behind the Penguins’ net, kept his head up, noticed the Avalanche’s forwards had failed to deny a long outlet, and put the puck right on Bennett’s stick, allowing the winger to maintain his speed and exploit a two-on-one.
Colorado’s mistake made Dumoulin’s decision fairly easy. But it’s an encouraging sign that he recognized the vulnerability in the first place. To work the puck up the boards or simply carry it until a forechecker arrived might’ve sufficed as a way to clear the Penguins’ zone, but it almost certainly wouldn’t have translated to such a clean scoring chance.
Thrilling transition play might suffer in today’s NHL, but every once in a while, glimpses of hope re-emerge.
I’ll be covering the Penguins on Friday, when the Los Angeles Kings visit Consol Energy Center. Make no mistake: The Penguins will need all the savvy passing from defensemen they can get, because last week’s run-in with the Kings showed how difficult life becomes when Los Angeles uses its big bodies to clog up passing lanes. All but four of the Kings’ skaters had CF% of 60.0 or higher in their 5-3 win, and none were below 50 percent.

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December 10, 2015
by Jonathan Bombulie


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Colorado postgame

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Take all the extenuating circumstances out of this game, and there wasn’t a whole lot remarkable about it.

The Penguins are a better team than Colorado. The Avs finished better in the first period and took a 2-1 lead. The Penguins had a big advantage in shots and scoring chances throughout the second, but could not score. The dam broke in the third, as you might have predicted it might after the way the second went, and the Penguins rallied for a 4-2 victory.

But let’s face it. The extenuating circumstances were the story here tonight.

If the Penguins play well and lose 2-1 tonight, do you think coach Mike Johnston keeps his job? After the comments Jim Rutherford made earlier this week? I’m not sure.

Ben Lovejoy said the Penguins were playing for their coaching staff in the third period. Johnston said he thinks players always play for each other. Either way, it was an inspired effort.

Then there’s the Pascal Dupuis factor. You had to notice that Beau Bennett, the star of the third-period comeback with a pair of goals, was playing in Dupuis’ old spot on the right wing with Chris Kunitz.

Ultimately, the Penguins have to string together a bunch of performances like this to think they’re on the way to something special, but they showed moxie, they moved back into a playoff spot and they changed the tone of the commentary around the team, at least for a little while.

Some other notes from tonight:

— Olli Maatta looks to really be rounding into form. He played 20 minutes, including almost four minutes on the power play and had two assists. A healthy, productive Maatta makes this defense corps look so much better.

— The Kunitz-Crosby-Bennett line had an outstanding night. They combined for 11 shots.

— A long penalty kill that included 36 seconds of 5-on-3 time early in the third period was key. It kept the Penguins within a goal. With Dupuis out, Nick Bonino, Matt Cullen and Eric Fehr did yeoman’s work on the PK.

— I thought Brian Dumoulin quietly had a really nice game. He was jumping up into the play a good bit.

— A 2-2 record on a four-game, 11-day road trip really isn’t bad. I guess it depends on how you build on it.

— Thanks for following along with me on this trip. The response to the Dupuis blog post from yesterday has been very positive. I appreciate it. If you haven’t seen it, scroll down a bit. Not sure when the next blog post will be, as I have travel and a couple days off ahead of me. Make sure to follow along with Bill West (on Twitter at @BWest_Trib). He’ll be jumping on in to join me on the beat full bore in the next couple of days.

Bye for now,

jb

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December 9, 2015
by Jonathan Bombulie


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Colorado pregame

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On Monday, general manager Jim Rutherford said he thought the Penguins had underachieved and he was taking a harder look at all aspects of the operation, including coach Mike Johnston.

Today, before the Penguins face Colorado tonight, Johnston talked about whether he’s feeling the heat.

“I don’t know if there’s any more pressure on one night than another night because I look at the last two games going into LA, you want to win those games. You’re trying to win every single night,” Johnston said. “They’re close scores. They’re one-goal games, as it was in LA, as it was in Anaheim. So you’re seeing that every night. They’re really tight. They’re really close.”

And about the notion that the team is underachieving?

“As far as scoring goes, we should be scoring at a higher rate, getting a few more goals,” Johnston said. “As far as our defensive play and how we’ve kept our goals against down, we’re probably one of the better teams in that area. Definitely, creating chances, getting second-chance opportunities, we’ve got to get those.”

More pregame notes:

— Kris Letang took part in morning skate and said he told trainers afterwards that he was good to go. Johnston said Letang looked good, but he had to huddle with trainers before writing Letang’s name in the lineup in pen.

— Judging by defense pairs in practice yesterday and who stayed on the ice longer at the end of morning skate today, I’d guess Letang is in and Rob Scuderi and Adam Clendening are out. D pairs yesterday were:

Maatta-Letang
Dumoulin-Lovejoy
Cole-Warsofsky
Scuderi-Clendening

— Johnston on what he expects from Daniel Sprong tonight: “As best as you can as a coaching staff, you keep him sharp in practice. You do extra drills with him.  You work him. But still, game action is game action. It’s a little bit different. I thought, when Plots was out for a while and Spronger was in, I thought Sergei came in and played really well right away. So I’m expecting Pronger, with the extra work we’ve done with him, should be fairly sharp tonight. As far as game readiness, it does take a little while to get back into the game flow.”

I think Johnston just accidentally dropped an S when he called the kid Pronger, but who knows? Maybe he has a new nickname.

Bye for now,

jb

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