NHL Debate: MVP, Postseason & Outdoor Games

sid

Through most of the season, Sidney Crosby appeared to be running away with the MVP title, but since missing the last quarter of the season with a broken jaw, has Alex Ovechkin now become league MVP?

Pat: I’m of the belief that Ovechkin has done enough to at least garner significant MVP consideration, if not possibly winning the award.

James: Ovechkin has definitely been on a tear recently but Sid is the MVP. He still leads the league in points and had the Pens on one of the greatest winning streaks in hockey history. He is the MVP.

Pat: While everything you said is true and impressive, the Pens have not missed a beat without Crosby, or Malkin for that matter, and their team depth is coming through. The Caps go as Ovechkin goes as both their slow starts proved this season.

James: One could argue that the Pens are missing a beat without Crosby. He is the greatest player in hockey. Look at his wingers and the statistics they put up when he is around. Crosby is the MVP due to his body of work. If needed, he would be out there.

Pat: Crosby’s body of work is out of this world but the award isn’t for the best player, it’s for most valuable to his team, and Ovechkin is that guy. Early in the year as struggles plagued Ovechkin, they in turn plagued the Caps. The Caps looked cooked early but Ovi regained his old form and now the Caps are knocking on the door for a division title

James: I don’t disagree with you but how many times does the award actually go to the most valuable player to his team? The award goes to the best player, and a lot of the time, the best player on the best team. Sidney finishes first with Ovi a close second.

leafs

Who is the team to watch this postseason?

James: Your preseason pick is on fire right now. The Rangers look hot and have turned up the heat even higher as of late. Great goalie, solid defense and the team is scoring goals. They could be deadly in the playoffs.

Pat: No doubt that the Rangers are coming on, but my team to watch is the Toronto Maple Leafs. Their team speed may be the best in the NHL and that, on a well coached team, can translate into great team defense. Team defense plus goaltending plus timely scoring equals Stanley Cup, and the Leafs can compete in all three aspects with nearly any team.

James: You and I both know that if your goalie gets hot then it changes everything. On the flip side, if your goalie is streaking.. Cough cough Marc-Andre Fleury last year… It is gonna be tough for any team to get out of the first round.

Pat: Ouch too soon, but you hit the nail on the head. Goaltending is the most important thing come playoff time. Another team that has it that could make some noise are the Columbus Blue Jackets. Sergei Bobrovsky will win the Vezina IF the Jackets make it in to the playoffs, and if they do get in, don’t treat them like the Jackets of old.

 

winter classic

The NHL is finalizing plans to have six outdoor games in a league-wide series next season. Good or Bad idea? Which games would you most want to see?

Pat: I’m for it as long as the multiple outdoor game format is not an annual thing. The appeal of the Winter Classic has faded a bit but still holds meaning. I’d hate to see the NHL over-saturate the outdoor game idea. As far as the games I’d want to catch, certainly the Ducks versus Kings in Dodger Stadium. It would be great for the exposure of the sport in California.

James: I agree with you that it would be great for the sport to have the exposure to California but the more the merrier. The Winter Classic has lost a little fire but the outdoor games are great for hockey. Publicity, larger stadiums, different atmosphere. Obviously you miss the intensity of an arena but I’m really looking forward to six games!

Pat: I’m open to it once. It could be cool to see all these games back-to-back in unique venues. After the black eye that the lockout left on the league, it could be a great step towards bringing the game back to prominence

James: You’re exactly right on the fact that it is a step in the right direction to bringing the league back to prominence. The lockout was tough but the ability to host outdoor games creates a new audience for hockey fans. Do one a month!

 

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Eastern Conference Playoff Preview

Ovechkin Skates in Washington, DC

 

With the NHL season winding down and the playoff races start to get tighter between fewer teams, let’s take a look at the playoff-bound and contending teams in the Eastern Conference. We’ll start with the preseason projections and see how all the teams are now in the playoff race.

1. Pittsburgh Penguins – Clinched No. 1 overall seed in the East and Atlantic Division title

Preseason scoop: “Pittsburgh Penguins – No doubt that the thought of a healthy and extra-motivated Sidney Crosby playing with defending MVP and scoring champ Evgeni Malkin is going to cause many coaches and players to lose some sleep in the coming weeks. The two-headed monster spearheads a potent offensive lineup with the likse of Kris Letang and James Neal hiding in Crosby and Malkin’s shadows. The big question for the Pens will be on the blueline, and in net after that colossal defensive breakdown versus Philadelphia in last year’s playoffs. Marc-Andre Fleury will need to return to his dominant form from the regular season, and put that playoff series behind him.”

It didn’t go according to plan for the Penguins this year, but it’s clear that they are thinking cup or bust. Crosby has been sensational in all the games that he has played, and despite missing the last quarter of the season with a broken jaw, he is still likely to win the MVP.Reigning MVP Evgeni Malkin has battled injuries and inconsistency this season, but is getting plenty of time to fully heal down the stretch. General Manager Ray Shero went all-in around the trade deadline acquiring veterans Douglas Murray, Jussi Jokinen, Brenden Morrow and Jarome Iginla. The Pens are surely the team to beat in the East.

2. Boston Bruins – Clinched playoff berth and are neck-and-neck with Montreal for the No. 2 seed in the East and Northeast Division title

Preseason Scoop: “Despite former MVP and Conn Smythe-winning All-Star goalie Tim Thomas sitting the season out due to personal reasons, the Bruins are still sitting pretty in the drivers seat of the division. Tuukka Rask is a more than capable starting goaltender, and there won’t be much of a drop-off for the B’s in the crease. Zdeno Chara captains a roster that will see the return of a healthy Nathan Horton, who was dealing with concussion issues last  season. The big, physical Bruins should be in control of the division from the get-go, especially if their offense starts hot.”

It has been an emotional season for the Bruins. They started by making a “paper trade” of Tim Thomas (although he was sitting out the year, he still counts against the salary cap, so he was dealt to the Islanders so New York could have more salary on the books and the Bruins would have cap room) early in the season. They have been battling with the Canadiens for the division all season, and that race will go right down to the wire. The big story about the Bruins this year is how they will bounce back long-term after the terrorist attack and subsequent man-hunt through the streets of suburban Boston, causing them to have to postpone two games. When play returned to the TD Garden, emotions ran high and were capped by a touching rendition of the Star Spangled Banner by the Boston crowd. With the situation over, and the season winding down, look for the Bruins to get back to business and try and lock up the Northeast.

3. Washington Capitals – Three points ahead of Winnipeg for the Southeast Division with three games left

Preseason Scoop : “Led by superstar Alex Ovechkin, the Caps look to find their winning ways again. A perennial playoff team, and often times a legitimate threat to win it all, the Caps have kept finding ways to blow it. They have yet to put a significant playoff run together, and their goaltending can go from perfect to disastrous in a matter of days. Loaded upfront with Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, and new addition Mike Ribeiro, the Caps cut dead weight in Alex Semin, and Braden Holtby proved in last year’s playoffs that he is a franchise-caliber goalie. If Backstrom can shake his concussion issues from last year, and defenseman Mike Green and Ovi can find their form from a couple years ago, and solid role players like Brooks Laich can hold the fort in the defensive zone, the Caps can be a truly dominant team.”

The Caps struggled mightily early in the year and at one point, looked to be a lottery pick. They were losing game after game in ugly ways, letting stupid penalties and disastrous turnovers doom them, and the goaltending was nowhere to be found. Brooks Laich was hurt for most of the year, and Alex Ovechkin’s production was OK, but his desire came into heavy question. Now, Ovechkin has hit the 30-goal mark, which is good for a player in ANY season, let alone a 48-game one (in which he still has three games left). The Caps, if they get in, are going to be very dangerous come playoff time. They’ve gotten hot at the right time, winning nine of their last 10, and Ovi and Mike Green have found their potent offensive forms. Only question will be goaltending for the Caps (as it is for every team).

4. Montreal Canadiens – Clinched playoff berth, battling with Boston for the Northeast Division

Preseason Scoop: “It was a rough season last year for the Habs that saw them finish dead last in the Eastern Conference, and third-worst in the entire league. There is not too much reason to believe this year will be much better. Young star defenseman and future franchise player P.K. Subban has yet to report to camp as a restricted free agent, and the Habs feature an aging lineup of veterans with some young upstart players like Lars Eller and Max Pacioretty. Unless Carey Price can stand on his head night in and night out and steal more than his fair share of games, the 48-game season will feel like an 82-game season in hockey’s promised land.”

Time to eat a little crow on this one. I completely wrote off the Habs at the beginning of the year, and totally underestimated the effect that new coach Michel Therrien would have on Montreal. He got the most out of every player on that roster on a nightly basis, including rookies Alex Galchenyuk and Brendan Gallagher. PK Subban finally signed after a holdout, and now leads the Canadiens in points on the year and is a budding star in the NHL. Carey Price has stolen his fair share of games for them this year, but the majority of the Habs wins have been team wins. As of late however, Montreal has fallen into some inconsistency and some troublesome goaltending. Many feel that Montreal overachieved early in the year, and it’s possible it did. It is also possible that it is just hitting a rough patch that nearly every team has hit and will snap out of this in time for the postseason.

5. Toronto Maple Leafs – Clinched a playoff berth for the first time since 2004.

Preseason Scoop: “The hockey-crazed city of Toronto has been desperate for a winner, and this year maybe its year. To say Toronto is a longshot to win the Cup may be an understatement, but I for one am a beLEAFer. After a monumental collapse late last season, Toronto may be a team to benefit from a shortened season. Phil Kessel and Joffrey Lupul had fantastic seasons last year and look to pick up where they left off. The forward unit is bolstered by the addition of James van Riemsdyk who was traded at the draft from the Flyers for Luke Schenn. While Schenn will be a tough loss, the blueline was and is the Leafs deepest spot, and JVR is a stud. Of course, we can’t for get to mention that  James Reimer needs to be lights out. If the Leafs get into the postseason, you never know what could happen.”

After my “eat crow moment”, here comes the “I told you so moment.” Despite Phil Kessel starting off horribly slowly, and Joffrey Lupul missing a huge portion of the season with a broken arm, the Leafs have returned to the postseason for the first time since 2004, and they are a team that could make some noise. James Reimer has stood tall in net for the Leafs all year, and while they could finish as low as eighth still, look for them to take the fifth seed. Kessel has come on lately and since returning from injury, Lupul has been nearly unstoppable. James van Riemsdyk has been phenomenal for the Leafs, and Nazem Kadri finally had his breakout year in the NHL, showing that they were right to develop him slowly. You have to feel for former GM Brian Burke though, who was fired at the beginning of the year (for refusing to trade for Roberto Luongo according to the rumor mill), he was the one that put this team together, and his last move as GM (trading Luke Schenn to acquire JVR) was arguably his best move yet as GM.

6. New York Islanders – Clinched playoff berth. Currently in a three way tie for sixth place.

Preseason Scoop: “An intriguing team to watch, the Islanders have been a perennial basement dweller in the Atlantic, however they boast an emerging star in John Tavares, backed up by the likes of Matt Mouslon and Michael Grabner. The Islanders are a young team that may benefit from playing every other night, and if they develop of winning streak early, they can be a contender for a playoff spot.”

Again, not many saw the Islanders contending for the playoffs, but for us here at TC4, we are not surprised. John Tavares continued his development as a former first-overall pick to quietly emerge as an MVP candidate. Tavares is 14th in the league in points with 45, but is third in the league in goals with 26, and has really come on the second half of the season. The captain-in-waiting of the Isles has been tremendous, and his supporting cast has done the job too. Moulson has kept pace with Tavares in points with 42, and free-agent signee Brad Boyes has been effective, posting 32 points. Goaltending has been the crutch to this team as Evgeni Nabakov (who refused to even join the team in 2010-11 when it picked him up off of waivers) is tied for the league lead in wins with 32. If he can get to 33 wins, the Isles will be headed to the dance.

7. Ottawa Senators – Clinched playoff berth. Currently in a three way tie for sixth place.

Preseason Scoop: “The Sens present one of the most balanced lineups in the NHL. They’re backstopped by Craig Anderson in net, who is one of the most underrated keepers in the league. In addition, the feature a balanced forward lineup of veterans like Daniel Alfredsson , Jason Spezza, Milan Michalek and Chris Neil that compliment defending Norris Trophy champion Erik Karlsson’s solid D corps. Injuries have taken a chunk out of the D corps however, and those suiting up will have to play to their max ability right from the hop for the Sens to compete for the division.”

Every player mentioned in our preseason preview for the Senators has missed an extended period of time, with key forward Jason Spezza and defending Norris champ Erik Karlsson still out of the lineup. Injuries have been the storyline for the Senators all season long, but despite having an injured list equal to their active roster, the Senators are in good position to make the playoffs. With only three games left, and a three-point lead over the ninth-place team, their fate lies in their hands, and they are getting healthy. Anderson is back, playing at his Vezina-worthy level, leading the league in GAA and save percentage, but he may have missed too much time due to injury to win the Vezina. If Ottawa gets in, it can present a tough matchup for any team because of Anderson’s play.

8. New York Rangers – Clinched playoff berth. Currently in a three way tie for sixth place.

Presseason Scoop: It’s Stanley Cup or bust for the Rangers this season. After having an impressive season last year despite under-production from superstar free-agent signee Brad Richards, Henrik Lundqvist was lights out and carried them to the Eastern Conference Finals. This season, the Broadway Blueshirts have added yet another star in Rick Nash, and feature an impressive young blueline with Michael Del Zotto, Marc Staal, and Dan Girardi. Up and down, the Rangers boast the most formidable lineup in the Eastern Conference.”

The most surprising team in a certain position, the New York Rangers are teetering on the edge of the playoff picture, currently sitting in the final position in the Eastern Conference playoff picture. They underachieved for most of the season, and many were wondering if coach John Tortorella, only a year removed from the Eastern Conference Finals, was on his way out of Broadway. Underachieving star winger Marian Gaborik was shipped out of town, and star defenseman Marc Staal suffered a terrible eye injury after taking a shot to the face, and his return this season is questionable at best. That’s the bad news. The good news is that the Rangers are 7-2-1 in their last 10 games, and seem to be catching fire at the right time. There is no room for error anymore, which has them playing “playoff hockey” early, and if they can get in, WATCH OUT. Henrik Lundqvist has been sensational all season and is the single biggest reason that the Rangers are still in the hunt, and not talking golf with the Lightning, Panthers and Flyers. Everyone’s preseason pick for Eastern Conference champs still may pull through.

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Pat

Pat Davis
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NHL Midseason Report

blackhawks

It seems like just yesterday that this NHL season may have been canceled, but cooler heads prevailed, and it was salvaged – although it’s an abbreviated 48-game season. Now, every team is past the halfway point, and like always with 24 games left, the playoff picture is rounding out, story lines have emerged, and surprises have appeared. Let’s check out the midseason recap with the top story lines in the league at the midway point.

Top 10 Storylines:

10. The Toronto Maple Leafs – In hockey’s Mecca, there is reason for hope. The Leafs have not made the playoffs since the 2003-04 season and currently hold the longest playoff drought of any NHL franchise. I’m sure the Toronto fanbase is not ready to declare their team a playoff team and are still waiting for the other shoe to drop, but the team has put itself in a good position. While they are still having some growing pains, the Leafs show up to play every night and are pretty well coached. They are getting the goaltending right now, and after 26 games, they sit at 31 points, five points ahead of ninth-place Winnipeg. With Phil Kessel slowly starting to round back into form after a slow start and Joffrey Lupul working his way back from injury, there is reason to be a beLEAFer.

9. Steven Stamkos – As expected, Steven Stamkos has picked up right where he left off before the lockout. He’s potting goals at a torrid pace again, and after 25 games, he leads the league with 19 goals, and trails only Sidney Crosby (45) in points with 37. The downside for Stamkos is that his team is flirting with last place in the East, as he and Martin St. Louis seem to be the only two who truly bring it offensively each game. Now that may seem like a bold statement seeing as the Bolts rank in the top-three in total offense, but after starting out strong, they now sit in 13th place, leading last-place Florida by only one point. Stamkos will garner some consideration for the Hart Trophy, but if his team isn’t competitive, he has no shot to win. The good news however; Tampa plays in the wide open Southeast, and only trails division leading Carolina (which just lost its star goalie) by eight points.

8. Edmonton Oilers – It’s time to crap or get off the pot for the Oilers. It takes time to develop players in this league, but the Oilers are clearly progressing slowly. Their lineup is LOADED with players who are “oozing with potential,” yet after 25 games, they sit in second-to-last place in the Western Conference and are just one point ahead of rival Calgary for last in the West. Edmonton is currently fifth-worst in the league in points, placing them in position for ANOTHER lottery pick. The trio of first-overall picks that the Oilers ice every night ─ Taylor Hall, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Nail Yakupov have combined for 44 points on the year. That is one less point than Sidney Crosby has In addition to the trio, the team sports impressive rookie free agent Justin Schultz on the blueline along with veteran Ryan Whitney. Young forward talents Jordan Eberle and Sam Gagner have been producing, but the wins are not there. The Oilers are 3-5-2 in their last 10 games and are showing no signs of coming on. Perhaps it is time to move some pieces to get a bonafide NHL starting goalie, some skilled grit in the top six or a top-four defenseman. What they have ain’t working.

7. Lindy Ruff – After 16 seasons as bench boss of the Buffalo Sabres, Lindy Ruff was fired on February 20, following Buffalo’s severe stumble at the start of the season. . While shocking to the players, it couldn’t have been that surprising, seeing as the Sabres players were getting outworked nightly. Even dating back to last season, Buffalo has not come close to meeting the lofty expectations set following new owner Terry Pegula’s purchase of the team in February 2011. During the 2011 offseason he showed the Buffalo fanbase that there was a new sheriff in town who was willing to pay for free agents to make Buffalo competitive. The only problem with that is that he overpaid for players like Ville Leino and Christan Ehrhoff, only to see them underachieve and become unmovable due to their contracts. This year Tyler Myers is the second-highest paid defenseman in the league, and he has shown few signs of earning it. After a fantastic rookie year, Myers has been average at best, and Ryan Miller hasn’t been able to carry the team on his back. After 26 games, Buffalo has 21 points… yikes.

6. The Philadelphia Flyers – After a pretty good season last year that saw the Flyers knock out archrival Pittsburgh from the playoffs in a classic series that threw all logic of both teams out the window, the Flyers have struggled to find themselves early. While Ilya Bryzgalov has not been bad for them, he has not been able to consistently steal points for the Fly Guys which is what they NEED him to do. After trading a rising star in forward James van Riemsdyk for “shutdown” defenseman Luke Schenn, the Flyers appear to have lost that trade. The resurgent Jaromir Jagr has moved on to Dallas and top forward Scott Hartnell has missed a ton of time due to an injury. Newly appointed Flyers’ captain Claude Giroux has not lived up to the superstar potential he is capable of, and Max Talbot has a mere 7 points in 27 games after posting 34 in 81 games last season. Wayne Simmonds has been a bright spot, bringing it every night, and GM Paul Holmgren brought back veteran Simon Gagne from Los Angeles to help bolster the scoring. The Flyers are trailing the eighth-place New York Rangers by three points, but the Broadway Blueshirts still have three games in hand. The Flyers are not out of it yet, but they’re flirting with disaster, and coach Peter Laviolette’s chair just may be getting warm.

5. The Washington Capitals – Caps nation has come back down to earth in recent seasons. After a few great regular seasons with disappointing playoff finishes, the Caps are now struggling in the regular season, appearing as team with no identity. At first, the only consistent player they had was Alex Ovechkin, but recently his undisciplined and lackluster play has been of huge concern and has even begun to put his name quietly in the trade rumor mill. Since Ovechkin’s rookie year in 2005-06, he has been compared side-by-side to his fellow rookie that year, Sidney Crosby, for whom Ovechkin beat for the Calder Trophy. Since that, however, Crosby has put to rest the Sid-Ovi debate by leading the Pens to two Stanley Cup Finals, and one win (while knocking Ovechkin’s Caps out of the playoffs en route). Crosby has also led the Pens to more sustained success, despite missing more than a full year with concussion problems. The Caps have had three coaches over the last two seasons, and are currently on the outside of the playoff picture, boasting a mere 21 points after 24 games. The Mike Ribeiro trade statistically looks good, but he fits the EXACT type of player mold that the Caps need to get away from; talented, but a spotty work ethic. He is Alex Semin as a center.

4. Sidney Crosby – Hockey has its best player back and healthy, and playing at an ABSURD level. Since returning to game action for good last March, Crosby has posted more points than the Hall/RNH/Yakupov trio combined, and even more than Ovechkin and Giroux combined. He has 20 points in his last eight games and 140 points in his last 89 games. We all knew that Crosby was capable of these types of numbers, but it’s great for the game that he is officially playing, healthy and back to pre-concussion form. Crosby’s star shines brightest on a squad that has 50 goal-scorer and last season’s MVP in Evgeni Malkin, the NHL’s highest-scoring defenseman in Kris Letang, surprise player of the year and third-highest scorer in Chris Kunitz, and the league-leader in power play goals in James Neal. The Penguins, who are the league’s highest scoring team, lead the Atlantic Division with 36 points in 26 games, trailing Eastern Conference-leading Montreal by two points.

3. The Montreal Canadiens – Speak of the devil. The Canadiens are tearing it up this season under new head coach Michel Therrien. With a tough coach who requires accountability from his players, the Canadiens are perched atop on the Eastern Conference after 26 games, and lead archrival Boston by one point in the Northeast Division. With a newfound gritty, workmanlike mentality under their new coach, the Canadiens are tougher to play against on a daily basis, and free agent signee Brandon Prust has been a big part of that. Although Prust was recently sidelined for 10-14 days with a shoulder injury, the Habs should be OK since they are getting world-class goaltending from Carey Price, and solid two-way play from the rest of the team. They show up every game and try to get to their game early, and the results, so far, have been great. Rookie studs Brendan Gallagher and Alex Galchenyuk have both been pleasant surprises and have played big roles in the Canadiens’ turnaround from last season’s last place finish in the Eastern Conference.

2. The Anaheim Ducks – If it wasn’t for the absurdity of the Chicago Blackhawks incredible points streak to start the season, the Ducks would be the talk of the league. After putting up only 80 points last season, the Ducks have come out flying (no pun intended…maybe) this year, their first full season under coach Bruce Boudreau. Boudreau was hired around midseason last year after the Ducks let former head coach Randy Carlyle go (now the head coach of the Maple Leafs), and the Ducks finished the year strong, but there was no indication that they would come out of the lockout with the league’s second-best record, posting 39 points in 24 games. WOW! Of a possible 48 points, the Ducks earned 39, thanks in part to the tremendous goaltending tandem of Jonas Hiller and Victor Fasth. Teemu Selanne continues to amaze and the top line of Ryan Getzlaf, Corey Perry and Bobby Ryan is just getting going. Nick Bonino has had a breakout year and veteran defenseman Francois Beauchemin has put together a Norris Trophy-caliber first half of the season. A formerly Disney-owned team has had a storybook season thus far as it trails the mighty Blackhawks by a mere six points (Anaheim has two games in hand), but with the uncertainty surrounding Perry’s future with the team, midnight may be coming soon for the Cinderella Ducks.

1. The Chicago Blackhawks – OH MY GOODNESS! What a run the Chicago Blackhawks put together to open the season. The Hawks earned points in their first 24 games of the year (half of the shortened 48-game schedule) and collected 45 of a possible 48 points. The truly impressive thing is the Hawks did it every way possible. They got world class goaltending from starting netminder Corey Crawford, and when he went down to injury, Ray Emery stepped in and played the best hockey of his career. Marian Hossa returned to play fully healthy after suffering a nasty concussion in last year’s playoffs and has been fantastic. Sophomore Marcus Krueger has improved his game by leaps and bounds, and Viktor Stalberg has been fantastic as well. The D corps has played great in all three zones down to a man all season, and the Hawks have showed up to play EVERY. SINGLE. NIGHT. Their streak came to an end in Colorado last Friday, but that doesn’t take away from the magnificence with which  they have displayed in the first half of the year. Patrick Kane has returned to superstar form, and captain Jonathan Toews has made a strong case to be with Stamkos and Crosby in the Hart Trophy discussion. The Hawks could sleepwalk into the playoffs from here on out, but don’t expect them to let up; they have their eyes on the prize and want the Cup, and are off to a near perfect start… watch out!

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Thank you for reading The Cover 4! Don’t forget to follow us on Facebook & Twitter.

Oh yeah, tell your friends too!

Pat

Pat Davis
Sports Activist for The Cover 4
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