BROSSARD, Que. — There was a running joke during the NHL regular season about how Rene Bourque would almost score, or almost complete a pass, or almost make a hit.
Not a lot went beyond the ’almost’ stage for Bourque as the former two-time 27-goal scorer with the Calgary Flames finished 13th in team scoring on the Montreal Canadiens with nine goals and seven assists in 63 games.
But in the playoffs, Bourque has arrived.
The left-winger’s hat-trick in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference final helped Montreal stave off elimination with a 7-4 victory over the Rangers and gave them new life heading into New York for another win-or-go-home matchup in Game 6 on Thursday night.
The Rangers lead the best-of-seven series 3-2 and must win at home to avoid a return to the hyper-loud and energized Bell Centre for Game 7 on Saturday night.
“At the end of the regular season, we saw Rene engaged in the game a lot more, moving his feet, being physical, going hard to the net,” coach Michel Therrien said Wednesday. “He’s doing a lot of good things.
“You can’t expect a player to score three goals every night or even score every game. But even when he doesn’t score, he’s playing solid hockey. He’s getting involved physically. And last night, for me, it was leadership. It was a huge game for us. He came up big, and that’s good not only for him, but for us.”
In 16 playoff games, Bourque has eight goals and three assists, and has become one of the team’s most effective forwards in a duo that was put together near the end of the regular season with centre Lars Eller.
In the post-season, he’s tied with Max Pacioretty for third in team scoring behind defenceman P.K. Subban with 14 points and Eller with 13. He leads the team in the Rangers series with four goals and two assists.
And he was tied for second in NHL playoff goals with Jonathan Toews and Jeff Carter, behind Los Angeles King Marian Gaborik, who had 10.
“It was definitely a good game for me to step up and help the team,” the 32-year-old Bourque said after his first career playoff hat-trick.
Bourque’s regular season was so bad he was made a healthy scratch for the first time in his career for five games in March, amid reports the Canadiens were trying to trade him and a contact worth $3.3 million per year for two more seasons.
That’s when he realized he needed to step up his game and he found it with Eller, another player who struggled on attack all season.
“We’ve been clicking, even from the (first round) Tampa series and the (conference semifinal) Boston series too,” said Eller. “We’re riding a wave.”
Asked what difference he sees in Bourque, Eller said: “Confidence, and he’s having more fun now. I don’t think it’s been fun all the time for him while he’s been here. So those are the things that stand out the most — him having fun and having confidence back in his game.”
Bourque scored three consecutive goals for his team against the Rangers, the first of which gave Montreal a 4-1 lead and led to star goalie Henrik Lundqvist being pulled for Cam Talbot in the second period.
Only 58 seconds after the Rangers tied the game 4-4 on a power play, Bourque scored his second. He added the insurance goal 6:33 into the third frame.
According to the Elias Sports Bureau, Bourque was the first Canadien to score three times in a game where the team was facing playoff elimination since Maurice (Rocket) Richard against Toronto in the 1945 semifinals.
He is the first Canadien with a playoff hat-trick since Andrei Kostitsyn in 2010, and the first to get one in a conference final since Guy Lafleur in 1975.
When he was acquired from the Flames in 2012, Bourque had only been in the playoffs once, scoring one goal in five games in 2009. He had two more goals in a five-game first-round loss to Ottawa last season.
“He’s a guy that wants to win,” said defenceman Josh Gorges. “Whatever happened throughout the course of the year, he just kind of put behind him and he’s realized that this is the important time.
“This is the time when guys have to step up and elevate their game. He’s been a beast for us in these playoffs, the way he’s been competing, driving the net, and all the little things. And he’s getting rewarded for his hard play.”
Bourque took a slashing major and a 10-minute misconduct in the skirmishes that broke out at the end of the game and now is second on the team with 27 penalty minutes, three behind Brandon Prust.
Prust will return from a two-game suspension incurred when he blindsided Derek Stepan in Game 3 of what has been a nastier than expected series between two teams known for skating and skill.
It started in the opener when New York’s Chris Kreider crashed feet first into the Montreal net, putting star goalie Carey Price out for the series with a right knee injury.
Then came the Prust hit on Stepan, and Ranger Dan Carcillo’s 10-game suspension for shoving a linesman.
In Game 5, New York defenceman John Moore was ejected for a blindside hit that left Dale Weise wobbly, although Bourque and Eller’s right-winger returned late in the game. There was also a head-butt by New York’s Derek Dorsett late in the game on defenceman Mike Weaver.
“It’s become really emotional,” said Gorges. “At this stage, it doesn’t matter who your opponent is, you’re looking at two teams trying to get a chance to play for the Stanley Cup.
“When you have that, it doesn’t matter who the opponent is. There is enough passion and emotion put into those games right there that you’re going to start getting some of that rivalry and heatedness. It makes the games fun to be part of.”