Pavel Datsyuk has been conspicuous by his absence through the first three games of the Stanley Cup Final.

Nursing an injured foot — believed, but not confirmed — to be a broken bone, Datsyuk has been relegated to a mere spectator, both in games and practices.

But the MVP finalist took the ice with his teammates yesterday, centering a line with Marian Hossa and Valtteri Filppula, leaving many to conclude that he will be in uniform for tonight’s Game Four at Mellon Arena.

Despite this, Red Wing coach Mike Babcock and Datsyuk himself have poignantly declared that his status remains a gametime decision.

Put it this way. If Datsyuk wasn’t likely to play, he certainly wouldn’t have found himself centering the second line in practice.

He’s playing.

Now, that begs the question: is he ready?

Based on a fan poll at top notch blog Kukla’s Korner, the overwhelming consensus (123 of 276 total votes, 45%, as of 12:00) is that he will play between 13 and 17 minutes.

That’s down (possibly significantly) from his playoff average of 20:22 through 13 games.

In other words, he isn’t ready

So, the new question becomes: is he being rushed back?

To put it bluntly, yes. Several people “in the know” have indicated that his skating, particularly his acceleration, is not good and that, in the locker room, he continues to walk with a visible limp.

So why dress him? Good question. I’m glad I asked. The Red Wings are on their heels.

Sure, they’re up two games to one, and their lone loss was a hard-fought battle that could have gone either way. But, then again, so were Games One and Two, both of which saw the Red Wings score several fluky goals while preventing several goals when the puck got behind goaltender Chris Osgood.

With a few different bounces, this series could be 3-0 Detroit, 3-0 Pittsburgh, or anywhere in between. The first two games proved a confidence boost for the Red Wings, but the third was a reality check.

Tonight’s game isn’t a “must win” just for the Penguins, but for Detroit as well.

If the Red Wings lose, they return home after sacrificing the previous two games to a team they seemingly put away after two. If the Penguins lose, they’ll return to Detroit down 3-1 and in an identical do-or-die situation as last year.

Needless to say, both teams realize the magnitude of this game, which is exactly why Datsyuk is likely to return.

But I wonder how much of a difference he will make.

Through 13 playoff games, the Russian has totaled seven points (one goal and six assists) and a plus-four rating.

Clearly, his offense has declined considerably from his 97 point performance during the regular season, and with a hurting foot, it’s unlikely his offense will improve at this point.

Even so, his defensive game is strong. In fact, among forwards in the league, he may be the best defensive player. But again, I hearken back to his hurting foot and hampered skating.

Will he be able to make the first steps to stay in stride with the speedy — and more importantly, healthy — Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby?

It seems unlikely.

That, however, is not to say that his presence in the red and white won’t be an improvement. Anytime an All Star, let alone an MVP candidate, returns from an injury, it bolsters the lineup, even if the player is playing at a fraction of his skill level.