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Tuesday, March 13, 2007
Updated: March 15, 1:38 AM ET
New teams, same questions for Forsberg, Bertuzzi

By Scott Burnside
ESPN.com

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Hours before Tuesday's game against the Detroit Red Wings, Nashville coach Barry Trotz was asked about the availability of newly acquired superstar center Peter Forsberg.

He gave a look that was somewhere between disgruntled and amused as he explained that Forsberg had taken a puck in the chin during the morning skate courtesy of rookie Alexander Radulov.

Peter Forsberg #21
Peter Forsberg can't seem to get up to speed for the Predators.

"He went to the hospital," the coach added with an almost obligatory shrug of his shoulders as if to say, stuff happens.

The injury wasn't major, a couple of stitches, but it was yet another reminder of the dark cloud under which Forsberg has played this entire season, a kind of running sight gag played at Forsberg's expense by the hockey gods.

Even if he hadn't taken a puck in the mush, it's debatable whether Forsberg would have played as he continues to try to work through an upper-body injury.

He has now missed five in a row and six of 13 since being acquired by the Predators in a stunning pre-trade deadline deal that cost Nashville Scottie Upshall, top defensive prospect Ryan Parent, a first-round draft pick and a third-round pick.

"If you can play, you're going to play," Forsberg told ESPN.com prior to taking the aforementioned puck in the chin. "But on the other hand, you know what's coming in April and you have to be ready for that. The team has been doing fine without me."

Has he become resigned to the fact that this is simply going to be the way it goes this season -- in and out of the lineup?

"I don't think you ever get used to it. It was frustrating every single day," Forsberg said. "I haven't played as well as I would like all year. I've said that all year. I know the situation. I know how it's been all year. But on the other hand, I can't think about that now. I've got to go from here."

Not that any of this matters, really.

The Predators didn't acquire the former NHL scoring leader and most valuable player to pile up points in March. The deep and talented Predators have managed very nicely on their own for the time being. Tuesday's 5-2 loss to Detroit marked the first time in the last 11 games the Predators did not accumulate at least a point.

No, Forsberg was acquired at such a high price to help push the Predators over the edge in the postseason. But the less he plays in the regular season, the greater the angst over whether he can deliver the goods once the stakes go up April 11. And of all the teams headed to the postseason, the Predators may face the highest stakes.

In some ways, the futures of Forsberg, the elite player, and Nashville, the emerging elite team, are tracking the same path -- the future enticing, yet unknown.

The Wings had plenty to celebrate last night in a Central showdown.

For Forsberg, one imagines his future will be determined in large part on what happens down the stretch. If he can't play at the level he expects, the potential for him to hang up the blades could be great.

As for the Predators, this year is a litmus test for the franchise.

This spring will mark the third straight playoff appearance for the Predators -- they were dispatched in the first round in 2004 and 2006 -- but fan support and, more importantly, corporate support hasn't come close to matching the team's on-ice evolution.

It's assumed a long playoff run will go a long way to cementing that all-important relationship, drawing season-ticket holders and corporate sponsors out of the woodwork. A change to the structure of playoff ticket sales should eliminate the problem of a year ago when postseason ticket sales lagged and the team threatened to black out television broadcasts of home games until games were sold out.

So, the equation seems simple. Bring in a stud like Forsberg to buoy an already strong franchise and ride the postseason wave to unprecedented economic success. In many ways, it's what happened in Tampa Bay and Carolina, the past two Cup winners.

But E=mc2 looks simple on paper too, doesn't it?

Tuesday evening, with the Nashville Arena jammed and buzzing with excitement, it was easy to forget for a moment this is a team whose future is anything but certain. With the Predators' maturation from expansion-team cannon fodder to legitimate Cup contender, they have developed a rather tasty little rivalry with their Central Division mates from Detroit. After Tuesday's win, the Wings moved to within a point of Nashville and hold a game in hand with a rematch set for Wednesday night in Detroit. The winner of the Central Division will almost certainly also earn the Presidents' Trophy as the NHL's top regular-season team.

After the trade deadline, this game looked like it might even have a nice subplot with Forsberg facing off against the Wings' big trade-deadline acquisition, Todd Bertuzzi.

The fact neither played raises the kind of question neither team wants to consider -- whether either team is good enough to go the distance in the playoffs without those players. Certainly both teams have significant injury worries that extend beyond Bertuzzi and Forsberg.

The Wings continue to toil without Henrik Zetterberg, Dan Cleary, Johan Franzen and Danny Markov. The Predators don't really know when offensively gifted Steve Sullivan will return to action, and Scott Hartnell's broken foot is still in a cast.

But those are known quantities to each team. Bertuzzi and Forsberg personify the intoxicating possibilities of the unknown. If Forsberg represents big-picture, franchise-saving possibilities, then Bertuzzi represents a picture only slighter smaller in scope for the Red Wings.

After winning the Cup in 2002, the Wings were bounced in the first round in 2003 and the second round in 2004. Then, last spring, the ultimate humiliation occurred as the No. 1 Wings lost to eighth-seeded Edmonton in six games. So, winning and losing this spring isn't going to prompt the Red Wings to pull up stakes and move to Kansas City, but it might affect the job security of Detroit coach Mike Babcock and some of his players.

Bertuzzi, who has played in only seven games this season, brings size and skill and snarl, something the Wings feel they need to once again challenge for the Cup.

"Is he going to step in and dominate the league?" Babcock said Tuesday.

No. But Bertuzzi is still 6-foot-3 and 242 pounds.

"He's still got good hands and can skate," Babcock said. "But it's 'outcome time' of the year. So that'll be a challenge."

Babcock would like to see Bertuzzi get in nine games, but it's more likely going to be four or five and then it'll be playoff time. He was not in Nashville on Tuesday and will not accompany the team on its two-game swing through Western Canada this weekend.

"He doesn't have to be 'the' guy, just be one of the guys," Babcock said of the big forward.

The same can be said of Forsberg in Nashville. He and Bertuzzi are two once-great players trying to stake a claim to what remains of their respective futures.

Both teams are hoping that future is now.

Scott Burnside is the NHL writer for ESPN.com.