Intriguingly, only three Forest players - two of whom joined the club after Van Hooijdonk started his three-month stand-off with the club - ran to congratulate him following his first Premiership goal for more than 18 months. But the City Ground crowd, sensing that he represents their best hope of survival, greeted the moment rapturously.
Derby's satisfaction at having denied Van Hooijdonk a winner was tempered by a head injury to their goalkeeper, Russell Hoult, who was carried off on a stretcher midway through the second half. Hoult, who had taken the full force of a Steve Stone shot in the face, spent the night in hospital suffering from concussion.
Dave Bassett, the Forest manager, argued that the incident had, if anything, worked against his team. Leading 2-1, they were only 18 minutes away from a first League victory since August when Derby equalised. Bassett admitted he had been convinced Forest were "on our way", adding: "I'm not making excuses, but we lost our momentum after the delay when the keeper was hurt."
In the event, Derby would have inflicted further misery on their neighbours but for a fine late save by Dave Beasant from Dean Sturridge. The latter won the penalty with which the visitors took the lead, and his impact as a substitute made one wonder why he had started on the bench.
Forest cannot afford to be so choosy; hence the rapprochement with their striking striker. Van Hooijdonk began rustily, mis-controlling a penetrative pass by Chris Bart-Williams in the opening minutes, yet became increasingly influential as the match began to live up to parochial expectations.
Both teams had penalty appeals turned down before Mr Barber finally pointed to the spot. Darryl Powell went sprawling as Beasant plunged at his feet in the 20th minute. The referee elected to play on without cautioning the Derby player for diving.
The official was equally unimpressed by Freedman's theatrical fall when challenged by Carbonari five minutes later, though he again declined to issue the caution many of his colleagues seemed to regard as obligatory.
Four minutes before half-time, Van Hooijdonk's brutal, angled free-kick almost knocked Hoult into the net as he clawed it to safety.
Barely a minute later, Van Hooijdonk's rehabilitation took another step when he was perfectly placed to keep out Carbonari's header with Beasant beaten.
Derby's growing assurance was rewarded in the 56th minute. Sturridge, having won possession from Thierry Bonalair, was brought down by the Frenchman as he bore down on goal. Tony Dorigo scored from the spot.
But within two minutes, Forest were level. Following a corner, Quashie's shot broke to Freedman, whose drive was pushed aside by Hoult. The former Scotland striker followed up to score.
Three minutes after the hour, Van Hooijdonk flicked Scot Gemmill's corner to the near post back over Hoult and into the net. However, despite Hoult's departure, Derby drew level in the 72nd minute when their Argentinian defender Carbonari prodded in a low cross from the left.
Nottingham Forest (4-4-2): Beasant; Bonalair, Chettle, Armstrong, Rogers; Stone, Quashie, Gemmill, Bart-Williams; Freedman (Harewood, 78), Van Hooijdonk. Substitutes not used: Hjelde, Shipperley, Gray, Crossley (gk).
Derby County (3-5-2): Hoult (Poom, 69); Prior, Carbonari, Elliott; Laursen, Harper (Sturridge, 42), Bohinen, Powell, Dorigo; Burton, Wanchope. Substitutes not used: Bridge-Wilkinson, Eranio, Baiano.
Referee: G Barber (Surrey).