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Before and after, Forsberg makes all the right moves

Yes, we've joked, too: The way Peter Forsberg is playing, we can expect 57 veteran players to inform their general managers they intend to take leaves of absence for the entire 2002-03 regular season, then show up in time for the playoffs.

If Mario Lemieux could be assured that his team could make the playoffs without him, he might ponder sitting in the owner's box, then suiting up for the Penguins in the playoffs.

Couldn't Wayne Gretzky at least still be effective on the power play in the postseason for Phoenix?

Could this be the start of a trend?

Then, we come back to the serious reality.

It's not as if the Swedish superstar took off for Maui last May, then spent the next 11 months sunning on the beach, playing golf, and eating before he returned in time for the 2002 playoffs -- which he has taken by storm.

Forsberg lost his spleen for heaven's sake, and that doesn't mean he left it in a bag in the overhead bin and forgot to take it with him when he got off the plane. It was removed surgically after it ruptured, and he was fortunate he was able to get immediate help when he doubled over in pain after Game 7 of the Western Conference semifinals a year ago.

Then he underwent so many foot and ankle surgeries, he piled up sufficient frequent patient points to get his next operation free.

Plus, there also are millions of reasons why no other NHL player is going to be willing to skip a regular season. Forsberg, after all, willingly gave up any claim to his salary for the first half of the season after he passed the team physical and skated with the team for the first few days of training camp.

Player to agent: "I'm taking the year off, without pay."

Agent to player: "WHAT? There must be $omething wrong with thi$ $tupid
connection!"

Forsberg needed time off to both heal and rejuvenate his mental batteries,
and he had the courage to admit it rather than go through the regular-season
motions, collect his money and try to awaken for the playoffs.

It's possible, and maybe even probable, that he would have been in the Avalanche lineup sooner if he had put himself in the care of team medical personnel during his sabbatical because his foot tendon problem likely would have been discovered sooner.

But the Avalanche have to like the way this has worked out. They saved roughly $5 million in payroll this season, and Peter Forsberg not only returned when it really mattered, but he returned better than ever. Usually playing left wing on the Chris Drury-centered line along with Steve Reinprecht, Forsberg is back to his "turnback" tricks, so reminiscent of the leaner Gretzky.

When he swoops in Joe Louis Arena, for example, the savvy fans gasp -- or inhale in anticipation of something "bad" happening.

That "oh-no" reaction, whether expressed verbally or just in body language, is more of a compliment than booing or other forms of "villain" targeting. So when Forsberg got to the puck in the Detroit zone Monday night in overtime of Game 5 after Drury fanned on Brian Willsie's pass, Detroit fans recoiled.

Forsberg, like Gretzky, is not renowned for his breakaway skills, but you don't want him with the puck. That's true, whether you're watching from the Red Wings' bench or in the seats with an octopus tucked under your seat -- the one you would have tossed out if Brendan Shanahan had only buried that virtual empty-net chance in the final stages of regulation.

Forsberg beat Dominik Hasek.

His 27 points not only are far and away the top total of the playoffs, but
that also means he has been in on half of Colorado's 54 goals in the playoffs.

And if the Avalanche can close out the Red Wings on Wednesday night in Denver --
certainly no better than a 50-50 proposition given the teams' parity and the
road-warrior nature of both the series and the postseason -- Forsberg and
Company would open the finals Saturday against Carolina in Denver.

So much for rust.

He's strong, he still has the knack to spot the contact coming and brace for it, or deliver the counterbalancing blow first. The instincts honed when he was playing for his father, Kent, in Ornskoldsvik, are sharper than ever. He is a combination of skill, savvy and toughness.

"I used to be amazed by what he does," said his linemate, Drury. "But nothing he does surprises me anymore. My first year and a half, I always was amazed. I'm beyond that now."

A year ago, Forsberg put a jersey over his shirt in the final minute of the Game 7 finals victory over the Devils, stepped into the bench and then joined in the postgame celebration. He didn't feel left out, but he didn't feel completely part of it, either. The Avalanche's regular-season mediocrity -- at least by the franchise's own standards -- seemed to underscore that while Colorado had managed to pull off victories over the Blues and Devils without him, he was indispensable for long-term success.

Maybe that's part of his fire, too.

He not only is a vital cog on a team that needs one victory in two games
against Detroit to advance to the finals, but he has been the best player of all
in the postseason.

"I didn't know what to expect when I came into the first game of the playoffs," Forsberg said. "I have been working hard off the ice, skating a little bit in August and January (before his surgeries), before I came back, even if I missed a lot of games.

"This is an easy team. I've played here for a long time. I've got great linemates. It's been easy to fit in."

And that was colorful for Forsberg.

"It's fun when you're winning," he said. "As long as we're doing that, it's great. This is really a tough series. Of course, you're talking about fun, but it's coming down to winning the games and playing hard and who wants to win."

His return also has taken some of the attention and physical heat off Joe Sakic, who spent much of the season being reminded that when Forsberg plays, most teams use their most physical defensive pair against the Swede because of the perception that the only way to control him is to goad him out of his
game.

"It's really amazing," Sakic said of Forsberg's playoff showing. "But if you saw him when he came back and how hard he worked to get back, this is the best shape he's ever been in. He's rested, excited and good things are happening for him right now. It's great for our hockey club. It takes so much pressure off everybody else. You can just play."

This isn't a miracle; but it does qualify as amazing.

Terry Frei of The Denver Post is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.