During the first half of the NHL season, it would have been almost impossible to imagine that Gabriel Bourque would rank among the leading goal scorers through the first week of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
That's because the Nashville Predators' 21-year-old rookie left wing did not even make his NHL debut until Dec. 28.
However, since then Bourque has firmly ensconced himself in the Preds' lineup, moving from fourth-liner to third-liner to, at times, second-liner. That is where Bourque was playing in the third period of Game 4 of his team's Western Conference Quarterfinal series with Detroit on Tuesday when he scored his team-leading third goal of the playoffs in the Preds' 3-1 victory that gave them a 3-1 series lead.
Nashville coach Barry Trotz has hardly had a critical word for Bourque, a player with modest size at 5-foot-10, 192 pounds, but with excellent speed and tenacity.
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"He's got great player values," Trotz said on Wednesday. "When I talk about player values, you talk about the work he puts in day in and day out. His detail and picking up on things, not only in video sessions but on the ice, and in practice he's very, very detailed and he's got a high commitment factor.
"Every play, there's not a regular, easy play. He plays every play out the way it's supposed to be played and, therefore, he gets good results. He's earned the right to move up the lineup and he's passed a few others to be a full-time regular."
So in the third period of a scoreless Game 4, when Trotz elected to tinker with the lines to provide some offense, Bourque was a natural to promote. Andrei Kostitsyn, who has played opposite Alexander Radulov on the second line with David Legwand at center, was moved to play with his brother Sergei and Bourque skated with Radulov. Those two combined for the game's first goal, as Radulov threw the puck at the net from along the goal line on the left side and it ricocheted off a skate to Bourque, who was wide open. He lifted it high into the net for the game's first score. First goals have been huge in the series, as no game has seen a lead change.
With his three goals, Bourque is just one off the postseason lead, and while his seven goals and 12 assists during 43 regular season games might not have portended such a productive postseason, other signs did.
In his first two seasons in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, Bourque played for Baie-Comeau, which did not have much of a distinguished postseason record during his stint. But after he was drafted in the fifth round in 2009 by Nashville, Bourque was acquired midway through the season by Moncton. He scored only three goals in 25 games for the Wildcats, but in the playoffs, he posted 19 goals and 10 assists in 21 games to win the Guy Lafleur Trophy as playoff MVP.
Bourque followed suit last year in the playoffs with Milwaukee of the American Hockey League, totaling seven goals and six assists for 13 points in 13 playoff games after posting 36 points in 78 regular season games.
Bourque had a hard time explaining why he tends to be so much more productive in the playoffs regardless of the level.
"I don't know," he said. "I just keep it simple and I just go to the net. … I just have to keep going to the net."
Legwand, a member of the organization since its inaugural season in 1998-99, said Bourque has been "awesome" and plays a style suited for the playoffs.
"He plays the game the right way -- hard and straight-forward," Legwand said. "He's been huge for our hockey club the first four games. He's going to keep 'er going. He's been solid for the course of the season. There wasn't much of a fall-off in his play at all, and that's huge for a young guy coming up from Milwaukee and being able to contribute all season."
Ironically, Trotz said Bourque earned the right to start the season in Nashville but was sent to Milwaukee nonetheless. The Preds had signed Niclas Bergfors, a member of the NHL's 2009-10 All-Rookie Team and a 20-goal scorer that season, and wanted to see if he could provide some scoring. Young players Cal O'Reilly and Blake Geoffrion were others who earned roster spots ahead of Bourque.
Left Wing - NSH
GOALS: 3 | ASST: 0 | PTS: 3
SOG: 8 | +/-: 3
Not only did Bourque outlast that trio, but he is now in the lineup ahead of Colin Wilson, a first-round pick in 2008 who totaled 15 goals and 20 assists in 68 regular-season games, and veteran Jordin Tootoo, a physical presence in the Preds' lineup for years.
Trotz said Bourque kept the right attitude when he was sent down.
"I told him he probably earned the right, but the reality is he's going to start in Milwaukee and just play the way he played through camp and carry that over into the Milwaukee season and it probably won't be long before you earn the right to be back in the lineup," Trotz said, "and basically he's earned the right."
Bourque said that back at the beginning of the season, he would have had a hard time expecting to be where he is now.
"I had a tough start in Milwaukee," he said. "The team was not going right. I think in December I did better in Milwaukee and I got called up. For sure I was surprised, but I'm very happy."