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On The Farm: Bourque Raises His Game

by Staff Writer / Nashville Predators
By Jason Karnosky
After a slow transition to the pro game, Predators 2009 draft pick Gabriel Bourque has arguably been Milwaukee’s MVP during the season’s second half.

If Milwaukee Admirals coach Lane Lambert was pressed to name the second half Most Valuable Player for his Western Conference-leading club, surely Gabriel Bourque’s name would be one of the first that would come to mind.

In his past 26 games, Bourque has 10 goals and 19 points. More importantly for Milwaukee, Bourque’s increased production came when Lambert needed him the most, as three of his team’s top five scorers are either up with the Nashville Predators or out of the line up with an injury.

Admirals Make American Hockey League History
With their 2-1 victory over the San Antonio Rampage on Sunday, the Milwaukee Admirals – Nashville’s primary developmental affiliate – made American Hockey League history, becoming the first team in 75-year history of the League to notch 90-plus points and 40 wins in eight consecutive seasons. The Admirals and Predators have been partners since Nashville’s inaugural season in 1998-99, with Milwaukee making the playoffs in all but one of 12 seasons since then. The Ads won the 2004 Calder Cup thanks to a handful of Nashville prospects, and advanced to the League final again in 2006 on a team that included current Predators Shea Weber, Pekka Rinne, Cal O’Reilly and Jordin Tootoo. With a 40-19-14 record heading into last night’s game against Chicago, the Admirals sat atop the West Division, a place they’ve ended the season three times in the last seven campaigns.
“(Bourque) has been arguably our best forward or one of our best forwards for the last two months,” Lambert said. “That’s a credit to him for sticking with the plan and the program right from day one when wasn’t getting as much ice time.”

Tracing Bourque success starts an early age. Bourque grew up in Rimouski, Quebec, which is home to one of the Canadian Hockey League’s best known junior teams – the Rimouski Oceanic. The Oceanic’s NHL alumni list includes such notables as Sidney Crosby, Vincent Lecavalier and Brad Richards, skaters that inspired Nashville’s 2009 fifth-round draft pick to set lofty goals for the future.

“There’s been a lot of good players who have come out of there and played (for the Oceanic),” Bourque said. “Though I didn’t get a chance to play for them, all summer I go home to train. It’s a lot of fun being there with all of the hockey history in that community.”

However, making the jump from playing Canadian juniors to the American Hockey League proved difficult in the early going for Bourque. The first-year forward needed seven games to record his first goal (at Chicago on October 24), and managed just six points in his first two months with Milwaukee.

“I’ve just tried to work hard all season,” Bourque said. “But I never stopped having confidence in myself that I could produce.”

Despite his slow start, Bourque’s Admirals teammates saw a lot of potential in the rookie forward.

“(Bourque) was a great player at the start of the season,” Milwaukee captain Brett Palin said. “Now he’s showing that can be even better.”

Bourque found his stride in February, notching points in all but four games during the month. He recorded his first multi-goal performance in a 6-2 win over Grand Rapids on Feb. 5.

Palin credits Bourque’s attitude and work ethic as the big reasons for his success on the ice.

“For a first-year player to have such an impact on our team is a credit to how approaches the game,” Palin said. “He’s been rewarded for being very professional and working hard on every shift.”

Another reason for Bourque’s strong play is due to comfort level he’s found with teammate Chris Mueller. In the early stages of the season, Lambert put Mueller and Bourque together on the same line and the two forwards fed off of their similar traits.

“I think Bourque and Mules found chemistry right from the very beginning,” Palin said. “Because of how well they work together, both have been able to keep up their offensive production and really help our team.”

Over the past few weeks, forward Ryan Thang joined the pair on Milwaukee’s top line. The trio has effectively taken over as Milwaukee’s most productive offensive combination.

“Bourque, Mueller and Thang all have good speed, play hungry and really hound the puck,” Lambert said. “When they play that relentless style they create a lot of offense off of turnovers.”
Thang has relished skating with a pair of forwards who prefer his brand of hockey.

“We have a lot of fun on and off the ice, and everything has been working well for us,” Thang said. “We’ve really been putting up some points.”

But Thang also credits Bourque’s effervescent personality as a big factor in Milwaukee’s success this season, especially during some of the low points.

“On the bench he’s very mature, but he’s always smiling and trying to get you going,” Thang said. “Even though he’s not the biggest guy on the ice, he’s scrappy, hits hard and makes things happen. It’s a pleasure to play on his line.”

With scorers like Blake Geoffrion and Jonathon Blum up with Nashville, and the Admirals’ top producer Linus Klasen out with a long term injury, Bourque knows his production will have to continue for Milwaukee to have success during the stretch run.

“With a lot of guys out of the lineup I have the opportunity to play on the first line with Chris Mueller and Ryan Thang and that’s been really helpful for me,” Bourque said.

Those competitive instincts and Bourque’s maturity as a player are just two of the reasons why Lambert sees a long term National Hockey League future ahead for his team’s youngest player.

“The bottom line is that Bourque has been keen and an outstanding player to coach,” Lambert said. “Even though he’s a young player he knows where he wants to go, how he’s going to get there and how he is going to make it happen.”

Though Bourque is ready for his shot with Nashville, the Admirals’ spark plug has no issue staying the course with his AHL developmental plan. Bourque knows his NHL opportunity will be coming soon enough.

“Right now I have to focus on being here in Milwaukee, playing my game and doing my job,” Bourque said. “But you never know with hockey. Maybe I will get a chance in Nashville next year or in another year, but if I keep playing with confidence and working hard eventually I’m going to be seen.”

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