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In his first season with the team, Glen Gulutzan led the Flames back to the playoffs after wild second-half run

by GEORGE JOHNSON @GJohnsonFlames /

Right off the hop, Glen Gulutzan was heavy on the collective kumbaya.

"At the end of the day," the new man in control was saying in his formative days as head coach of the Flames, "there's a lot of parity in the NHL, a lot of good teams in this league.

"So you're trying to discover things that can separate us from the others.

"Being as tight-knit as we can as a group is one of those things.

"You can't do it alone. You do it together."

On the ice.

Off it, too.

New coach. New personnel. New tactics.

After a bumpy opening half season, the Flames would ride that sense of togetherness and a growing grasp of the style Gulutzan had installed as non-negotiable into a 45-win, 94-point season, good for third in an ultra-competitive Pacific Division and the first wildcard playoff seeding in the Western Conference.

If the first-round post-season ouster at the hands of the Anaheim Ducks stung, bitterly, particularly given the closeness of each game, the inroads made provided reason for optimism.

"It's still pretty raw. But if you look at it, a lot of good has happened this season,'' reasoned GM Brad Treliving. "I said it three years ago when I got here: You can make trades and signings to help, sure, but if you look at good teams, they get better from within.

"I thought we saw some real growth in that area. In a lot of cases - and it's real difficult to say when you're out in four games - but a lot of those people showed growth in these playoffs.

"I don't like to live in perception. I prefer to deal in reality. And the reality, as I see it, is this team is not far away."

A quick check of reasons for drawing optimism from 2016-17:

The fast-track maturation of rookie Matthew Tkachuk into a front-line left-winger. Mikael Backlund's elevation into a genuine Selke Trophy candidate. The emergence of the 3M Line as among the most proficient both-sides-of-the-puck trios in hockey. Sam Bennett's late-season and playoff push. Johnny Gaudreau's return from a broken pinkie finger that cost him 10 games to lead the team in scoring (61 pts) for a second straight season. Sean Monahan's 27 goals.

The relative youth of the group moving forward. That stretch between Jan 26 and March 19 when the Flames went on an eye-popping 17-3-1 run to shoot up the charts. A franchise-equalling 10-game win streak. Goaltender Brian Elliott's franchise-equalling personal 10-game win streak. Captain Mark Giordano back to his best: A team-topping plus-22 to go along with 39 points and an average ice time of 23:34 per night.

"I think we're right there,'' contended centre Sean Monahan on clear-out day down at the Dome. "This (has been) a fun season.

"I think we took a lot of big steps here as a team.

"To get into the playoffs with the young group that we have and some of the guys who haven't played in the playoffs I think that's a step in the right direction. Getting swept is going to sting all summer.

"I think this group we have next year is going to be very exciting."

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