Having contributed 89 points during the regular season, Peter Forsberg was very much a part of Colorado's Stanley Cup Playoff race in 2001. His 14 points in 11 postseason games propelled the Avalanche toward the proverbial finish line, but Forsberg was stuck on the sidelines as his team skated toward the big silver prize.
Forsberg was no stranger to sitting out and had become all too familiar with the world of rehab; in 1999-2000 alone, Forsberg missed 34 games because of five separate injuries. This injury was unlike any he'd endured in the past. Having had emergency surgery to remove his ruptured spleen, Forsberg learned that recovering from such an operation was a slow and painful process, although perhaps not as difficult to deal with as sitting out the final two rounds of the playoffs.
Watching the Avalanche win the Stanley Cup from the sidelines certainly didn't carry the same impact that Forsberg experienced in 1996 when Colorado was crowned NHL champ.
After resting for a month, Forsberg worked out twice a day to speed up his recovery. Then he had to undergo surgery on both ankles that summer and as quickly as drawing the wrong card in the game of Candyland, landed right back on the space that marked the beginning of the process.
Still, the hockey world was taken by surprise that September when one of its greatest stars announced he was taking an indefinite leave of absence to heal from the vast collection of injuries he'd gathered in two years.
"I think I need to sit back and listen to my body," he said at the time. "My body has been taking a lot of abuse, a lot of beating the last couple of years. I need to heal my body before I get back playing."
What he deemed "a little break" from hockey turned out to be a lot longer than anticipated. When Forsberg arrived back in Denver in January, an injury to the tendons in his left ankle was discovered during his medical evaluation. Forsberg was told that instead of returning to the game he loved, he would require yet another operation.
He had no choice but to accept that he would miss the remainder of the regular season and the 2002 Olympics. The two-time Olympian was honored with his own stamp in Sweden after scoring the clinching goal in a shootout vs. Team Canada in 1994, this time he was forced to mail in his dream of adding another gold medal to his collection.
"It was devastating," Forsberg said of the news.
The Avalanche organization, Swedish national team and fans across the world concurred.
"You can't replace a guy like that," said Colorado captain Joe Sakic. "He's one of those dynamic players that can dominate any game."
Any player that has undergone rehab can tell you what a frustrating and grueling ordeal it is, but to go through it time after time, for years on end, keeping a positive outlook is both pertinent and challenging. Forsberg knew he didn't have any other option.
"I had just one focus, and that was to come back in time for the playoffs," he said.
Sure enough, he returned to the Avs' lineup in time for the start of the 2002 playoffs.
"The first of couple games back, you play on that emotional high, that adrenaline," Sakic said. "Then you slow down a bit. But he never did slow down, he just kept going. He worked as hard as he's ever worked, he always had that hungry gleam in his eyes."
After missing almost an entire year of hockey, Forsberg led the NHL with 27 playoff points, collected in 20 games during the 2002 Stanley Cup playoffs.
After missing almost an entire year of hockey, Forsberg led the NHL with 27 playoff points, collected in 20 games. He scored two game-tying goals and four game winners, including two in overtime. The Avalanche made a good run at its second consecutive championship, which would have been its third in seven years, but was eliminated by the Red Wings in Game 7 of the Western Conference Finals.
Forsberg looked forward to the 2002-03 season, but didn't get off to the start he wanted. Neither did his team.
"The beginning of the year was so-so," he said. "I struggled at first, but lately the whole team has been playing better."
When Sakic was sidelined on Jan. 23 with a broken foot, it was Forsberg's turn to help fill in the huge lineup gap. Centering Milan Hejduk and Alex Tanguay, Forsberg carried the Avalanche to a 14-game unbeaten (11-0-2-1) in regulation streak that was snapped by a 4-1 Islanders victory on Feb. 21. Forsberg has been virtually unstoppable. His line has become one of the most potent in the game.
According to Forsberg, the success of the line is not based on collective talent.
"The key is hard work. If we all work, we create chances because we have a good combination of skills," he said. "We open the ice for each other."
The result had helped bring Colorado vault into the thick of things in the Western Conference playoff race.
"He's just a tremendous all-around player," said Islanders defenseman Kenny Jonsson. "If you compare him to guys like (Jaromir) Jagr or (Peter) Bondra, they play an easier north-south game where he goes in grinds it out. He hits people and doesn't mind getting hit. He's really a battler, who works a lot harder then most for loose pucks."
Kenny Jonsson: (Forsberg) goes in grinds it out. He hits people and doesn't mind getting hit. He's really a battler, who works a lot harder then most for loose pucks.
"Obviously his talent and offensive creativity is something special, but it's what's inside that makes him special," said Granato. "It's his puck and when he wants it, no one can get it from him.
"He's as great of a competitor as I've played with," said Granato, who was a feisty two-way winger in his playing days and spent over 11 of 13 seasons facing Forsberg as a Western Conference opponent.
"Now he's on my side and that's a heck of a lot more fun."