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Hockey Injuries to core players give young Habs chance to shine

Montreal Canadiens forward Daniel Briere (48) lays on the ice after colliding with Nashville Predators forward Eric Nystrom (not pictured) during the second period at the Bell Centre.

Eric Bolte/USA Today Sports

Making the NHL can sometimes be a function of circumstance rather than strictly one of ability.

Take a gander at the Montreal Canadiens, for instance.

When the 2013-14 regular season started, a mere 16 days ago, it wasn't clear in the organization's mind whether centre Michael Bournival was ready for prime time.

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Now, he's being thrust into a top-six role as a replacement for Daniel Brière (concussion), and has been told he can move out of his downtown hotel and rent an apartment.

The 21-year-old, second-year pro appears grimly determined not to let it all go to his head, in answer to a barrage of questions on his new-found status, he kept repeating: "I'm just trying to keep it simple."

By now we know a little about the speedy Bournival, who has given a good account of himself in five games this season, mostly on the fourth line.

But is rookie Patrick Holland, a seventh-round draft pick in 2010 who was acquired from Calgary as part of the between-the-periods trade that sent Michael Cammalleri to the Flames in January of 2012, an NHL player?

The answer will become apparent if, as expected, he makes his big-league debut Tuesday against the Edmonton Oilers, the team he grew up cheering for.

That's exciting, but don't expect the 21-year-old Lethbridge, Alta., native to describe it as a dream come true.

"When I was a kid, I always kind of dreamed of growing up to be [comedian] Jerry Seinfeld," Holland said with a smile. "So being a professional hockey player and playing an NHL game is an awesome alternative."

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Organizational depth may be just another buzzword, but that doesn't make it any less crucial.

The season is still in its early stages, but the injury bug is starting to bite several teams – the NHL's list of walking wounded had 88 names on it going into Monday's games. Three clubs have at least six players out injured, two of them will meet at the Bell Centre on Tuesday.

If the Habs' situation isn't ideal, the Oilers' is arguably worse.

Winger Taylor Hall isn't with the team, having flown back to Alberta to have his injured left knee assessed, and there are doubts over the ability of first-line winger Jordan Eberle and veteran forward Ryan Smyth. Asked about Eberle and Smyth on Monday, Oilers head coach Dallas Eakins said: "Who was the first one? … We've got so many guys hurt right now, it's a long list."

Injuries are a fact of life in pro sports, and teams typically accept them phlegmatically, even when star players such as Hall and centre Sam Gagner (who is practising after breaking his jaw in preseason) are affected.

"That's why you have minor-league teams, that's why you have extra guys on your team. As many injuries as we have right now – I think we're at eight the last count I got – when somebody's hurt or somebody's out of the lineup, it provides an opportunity, and there are people dying for an opportunity," Eakins said.

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The Canadiens are seven bodies short of their full complement as they ready to play their ninth game of the year – they have played just 11 per cent of the regular season.

Already down top scorer Max Pacioretty, who will be out three weeks with a hamstring injury, the Habs lost Brière and human Swiss Army knife Brandon Prust – "He's useful in all situations," teammate Brendan Gallagher joked – last Saturday.

They're already short of blueline depth with the injured Douglas Murray, Davis Drewiske and Alexei Emelin, and of fourth-line heft with George Parros.

Montreal coach Michel Therrien echoed Eakins, saying "we can't panic" and the club will give its prospects a chance to show their wares – even as the clamour on talk radio and fan forums builds to entertain alternatives like veteran free-agent winger Simon Gagné.

"We need to give the chance to young players if we're going to keep moving forward. It's part of the plan, you see [Bournival], he's had the opportunity and seized it," Therrien said. "We liked Holland in training camp … you have to have confidence in the people inside the organization."

That Holland was called up ahead of players such as Gabriel Dumont and Louis Leblanc, each of whom has NHL experience, will doubtless raise eyebrows. But it's clear the Habs want to see what they have in the former Tri-City Americans stand-out.

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"This is going to be really special," Holland said. "Hopefully, I don't do anything stupid and cost us a goal … if I can get a point, then, awesome."

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