MONTREAL -- To say Montreal Canadiens forward Rene Bourque had a difficult regular season would be putting things mildly.
Bourque was a lightning rod for criticism all season, hitting a new career-low for a full season with nine goals in 63 games. Coach Michel Therrien finally had enough in March, making Bourque a healthy scratch for six of the final 16 games of the regular season.
It would have been impossible to imagine entering the Stanley Cup Playoffs that Bourque would be a difference-maker for the Canadiens, but that is exactly what he has become.
For the first time since he came to the Canadiens in a trade with the Calgary Flames in 2012, Bourque has been a physical force, using his big body to create space for linemates and finding the finish that got him 27 goals in back-to-back seasons with Calgary.
With the Canadiens facing elimination in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference Final against the New York Rangers on Tuesday, Bourque made sure the fans and media who criticized him all season long will forget about how trying of a season it's been for him.
Bourque scored his first playoff hat trick in a 7-4 win at Bell Centre to force Game 6 at Madison Square Garden on Thursday (8 p.m. ET; NBCSN, CBC, RDS).
"It was definitely a good game for me to step up and help the team," Bourque said.
All three of Bourque's goals were important.
His first goal gave Montreal a 4-1 lead at 6:54 of the second period, seemingly putting the game to bed for the Canadiens. When the Rangers charged back with three straight goals in 4:24 to tie the game 4-4 at 14:12 of the second period, Bourque re-established Montreal's lead 58 seconds later when he took a pass from Dale Weise in the slot and shot it past Rangers backup goalie Cam Talbot before tripping and flipping over.
"It's easy to sit back and get down on yourself after giving up that lead, but coming out right away and putting that in the top corner, that's the difference in the game," Canadiens forward Max Pacioretty said. "It was a huge boost for us."
Psychologically speaking, aside from providing a lift to his team, Bourque's goal was a dagger for the Rangers.
"If we're able to get out of that second a tie game, I think it's a different story," Rangers defenseman Dan Girardi said. "But they showed a lot of character there coming right back on a quick 4-on-3. Bourque made a great play to kind of move sideways and hit the post and in. They kind of didn't look back from there."
Bourque completed the hat trick at 6:33 of the third period off a perfect pass from Weise, feathering it between Ryan McDonagh and Chris Kreider to send Bourque in alone for a top-corner shot to give the Canadiens an important insurance goal to make it 6-4.
In one night, Bourque scored one-third the number of goals he scored all season, and his playoff total of eight in 16 games is one shy of his regular-season total.
In six weeks of excellence, Bourque has made a city forget six months of ineptitude.
"It was nice to bounce back," Bourque told the Canadiens website. "We were pretty relaxed despite the circumstances. We knew what we had to do. Dale Weise made two great passes to me on my second and third goal, just like Lars Eller made a great pass on my first goal. I was able to use my speed to get open for a shot."