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Optimism should abound around Flames despite first-round loss

by GEORGE JOHNSON @GJohnsonFlames /

It's difficult, sifting through the immediate aftermath of an all-too-early playoff exit, to detect even a slivery shaft of sunshine through the gathering cloud cover.

No matter how hard you squint.

However painful the five-game post-season ouster by the Colorado Avalanche feels for the Flames and their fans at the moment, though, in terms of development, of progression towards the end game of being an annual viable title contender, the 2018-19 season, taken on the whole, should be regarded as a positive step forward.

As evidence, start off with those 107 regular-season points and 50 wins, that 23-point standings increase and a first regular-season conference title since 1990.


Video: CGY@NJD: Giordano walks in and scores on the backhand


Over the long slog of an 82-game itinerary, these Flames finished third in home points (57) and home wins (26) and sixth in road points (50); scored the most short-handed goals (18) of all 31 teams, tied for second in total goals (289) and second outright in goals for/against differential (+62).

Given the rapid rise from outsiders to favoured status, expectations entering the post-season were dizzyingly high, anticipation elevated to a level not felt hereabouts for quite some time.

But as so often happens, the ages-old cliché about the second season being a completely different animal - particularly the roulette-wheel spin of any first round - proved once again all-too-true.

At this time of year, being Bruce Banner just won't cut it. Only the Hulk will do.

"Some of the strengths that we had during the regular season,'' conceded boss Bill Peters during his final post-game address of 2018-19, "weren't strengths in Round 1."

The playoffs are an unforgiving, learn-on-the-job exercise. That's a major part of the learning curve for any group.

Looking back, however, there are any number of positives to draw from, moving forward.

Optimism comes in the tightness instilled by Peters during his debut season at the helm. In Johnny Gaudreau's 99-point sleight-of-hand, however difficult the latest playoff experience. In the growing influence - inside the boards, as well as out - of Matthew Tkachuk and the truculence of Sam Bennett.


Video: NYI@CGY: Gaudreau picks the corner with a rocket


In the grit of Travis Hamonic, the rise of defenceman Rasmus Andersson and left-winger Andrew Mangiapane to everyday-NHLer status, and the poise shown by another rookie, Juuso Valimaki, thrown mid-stream into the cauldron of the NHL post-season.

In the quick assimilation of off-season recruits such as Derek Ryan, Noah Hanifin, Elias Lindholm and their elevation to key cogs in the machine.

Individual player performance, adjusted needs, finances, age and contractual situation will dictate how different the lineup looks next season from the one that saluted the Scotiabank Saddledome faithful on Friday night. 

Key restricted free agents include Tkachuk, Bennett and Mangiapane up front, along with goaltender David Rittich. As well, Mike Smith, the team's best performer through the Colorado series, is scheduled to become a UFA on July 1.

As well, string-pulling GM Brad Treliving has shown he isn't shy about tweaking.

"It's hard in the NHL; it's difficult to replicate the same team every year in the salary cap era with free agents and guys making decisions,'' acknowledged Peters.

"That's the reality and it makes it tough. This is a tight group and we had some great accomplishments through 82 games. 

"We will learn, grow and come back stronger next year."

That's non-negotiable, in order to get to where they aspire to be.

Much headway, a stellar regular season proved, was made.

The window has opened for this team.

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