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ANSWERING THE BELL

This edition of the Flames stepped up with special moment players won't soon forget

by GEORGE JOHNSON @GJohnsonFlames / calgaryflames.com

On the sizeable TV monitor stationed on the far wall of the Calgary Flames inner sanctum, the on-screen message late Friday spoke of both achievement and ambition:

CLINCHED

2017 Stanley Cup playoffs

"Any way we can turn down the lights,'' asked Matt Stajan playfully, "so it'll show up better?''

No reason. Everybody who needs to, knows.

Their names are back in blinking neon on the Stanley Cup playoff marquee.

"I said to the guys, and I meant it," said coach Glen Gulutzan, looking very much the satisfied gentleman. "Those guys, they pushed. I've never been as proud of a group, from the adversity were had at the start, just sticking with it, in my 17 years, 18 years of coaching.

"This is just a fantastic group of guys."

"Very proud of what they accomplished."

Rebounding from an uncharacteristically tight opening, the Flames made their second chance to clinch count, overcoming a jittery, gaffe-filled first-period to dust the San Jose Sharks 5-2.

"We'll enjoy this,'' said captain Mark Giordano. "We've had a lot of ups and downs this year but we found a lot of resilience through the latter half of the year.

"There's excitement. A little bit of relief, too, to get it over with. You don't want to go into the last couple having to do it.

"But there are a lot of four-point games coming up so sharpen our game a bit because we have a chance to move up."

This edition of the Flames, added Stajan, sending up a bit of a cautionary warning flare to the short list of potential first-round playoff opponents, are a more dangerous group than the one that burrowed into Round 2 in the spring of 2015.

"I think it's a little different now. We expected to be here, in this spot,'' he maintained, "whereas a couple years ago maybe we surprised everybody.

"A lot of hard work has gone into this. We really turned it around after All-Star break. We should be proud of ourselves.

"Now we push. Now we go after what we really want."

In nailing down their berth among the Postseason 8 out West, Johnny Gaudreau had his dancing shoes snugly on, creating magic from the mundane, Sam Bennett played out of his skin, capping a brilliant night by hitting an empty net to send the Saddledome into raptures.

And most decisive of all, goaltender Brian Elliott threw up another wall dilettante Donald Trump can only dream of.

"I'm loving it right now,'' said Bennett, whose unerring, coverage-splitting backdoor pass found Gaudreau for the game-opening goal, post-game. "I'm having a lot of fun. This way you work hard in training camp, this is why you work hard in the summer: For this moment. For these playoffs."

Elliott was added in the summer for moments. Those "Moooooooooose!'' chants familiar to Missourians are beginning to pick up decibel-level and frequency around the upper reaches of the Scotiabank Saddledome.

"He's been our best player game in and game out for the majority of this year,'' raved Bennett. "He deserves all those chants and I hope they keep on coming."

Two gems in particular stand out, stabbing a blocker to spit back Joe Pavelski's shot from prime location and with the score 4-2 and 6:34 left, flashing the leather like Brooks Robinson at third to flag down a 2-on-1 off the stick of Sharks' right winger Kevin Leblanc.

"Right now, it's just kinda do whatever you can to get the win,'' said Elliott, (characteristically) underplaying his role in this moment, and this renaissance. "

Four games - two against Pacific Division-leading Anaheim, one each against the Sharks and Kings - round out the schedule.

With a spot confirmed, in this daily Snakes & Ladders game of jockeying for position, there's still plenty of time, and wiggle room, to climb the ladder.

"Sometimes,'' said Gulutzan, who of course coached a spell in Nevada's gaming playpen, "playing with house money's a little dangerous in Vegas but we're going to see where we can take this, how high we can get in the standings.

Given skill the quality of Brent Burns, Joe Thornton and Joe Pavleski, Patrick Marleau et al, even at 4-2 an undercurrent of nervousness prevailed.

 So only when Bennett hit the empty net with 33.2 seconds remaining could everyone in the building exhale.

"I thought,'' mused Gulutzan, "that I was the only guy nervous. But when Benny came out of the box and got the empty netter, I watched all the guys stand up and start hugging each other.

"I could tell they felt probably a little bit the same as me.

"A special moment there, I can tell you.

"Something I'll remember, for sure."

 

 

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