KIMMO TIMONEN can't really explain how it happened, how he went from being done for the playoffs to very probably being in the lineup for tomorrow's Game 5, assuming all goes well when the Flyers' top defenseman practices today.

"I didn't expect this news" from a Thursday follow-up visit with Dr. Ronald M. Fairman, chief of vascular surgery at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania, Timonen said yesterday. Timonen, 33, was smiling as he sat at a podium after taking a 35-minute solo skate. "I feel confident I'm ready to go Sunday, but I won't know for sure until I practice with the team."

Timonen's unexpected return - which could be accompanied by the return of Braydon Coburn, as well - would at least help coach John Stevens stir the embers of his team's fading season. The Flyers, down, 3-1, in the series after their 4-2 Game 4 victory at home, need to do something no team has done in these playoffs to bring the Stanley Cup Eastern Conference final series back to Philadelphia for Tuesday's Game 6. They need to win tomorrow in Pittsburgh, where the Penguins are 7-0 in the postseason and have won 15 in a row overall, dating back to an overtime loss to San Jose on Feb. 24.

Those facts underscore how very far away the Flyers remain from becoming the first NHL team since the 1975 New York Islanders to climb out of a 3-0 hole and win a playoff series. But it's also true that they are a different team with their best defenseman breaking up scrambles and moving the puck up the ice.

"Kimmo is one of the best puck-moving defensemen in the league," Flyers goalie Martin Biron said yesterday. "He's good, and he's even better on the ice when you don't notice him, because he does the little things right all the time. He makes guys think twice. It's no secret he's an All Star. There's fans around the league that have probably never noticed him, but when you play against him or you play with him, that's when you appreciate his full value. I think that our defensive corps really looks at the way he plays, to be able to settle the game, and settle our emotions or anything out there."

Stevens called Timonen "a huge part of our team."

"Through this year, he's progressed, and in the playoffs he's really taken his game to another level," Stevens said. "I think just his presence around our team all year, he's got deep respect by all his teammates. He just has composure all the time. I think that's infectious on our team."

Obviously, getting back Coburn, the team's second-best defenseman, also would be a boost. That situation was a bit murkier yesterday. Coburn did not skate and refused requests for comment through a Flyers spokesman. He is expected to practice today, as he recovers from taking a puck to the face early in Game 2. Coburn suffered a closed left eye, which now is reopening, and took about 50 stitches. He will have to wear a visor if he returns.

"I think his vision, the swelling has gone down to the point where he can see," Stevens said. "I still think it's a little distorted - he'd know better than me - just in terms of looking peripherally. I think the swelling hasn't gone all the way down. But I think he can get to the point where he can see well enough to play."

General manager Paul Holmgren indicated the eye wasn't the only problem, however. Holmgren has said Coburn threw up on the flight back from Pittsburgh after Game 2, a possible sign of a concussion. Yesterday, Holmgren said Coburn, 23, "is going through some struggles right now" and "still doesn't feel right . . . He's got a bright future ahead of him and we just want to be careful with him."

Asked whether Coburn is exhibiting concussion symptoms, Holmgren said: "Not really . . . We're continuing to monitor that . . . Nobody has ever said that to me. [But] he got hit in the head with a puck, at a high rate of speed, and he doesn't feel right."

Timonen has felt pretty much right all along, except for the numbness and cold feeling in his toes when he skates. He noticed that in Game 5 of the Montreal series, after blocking a shot with his ankle in Game 4, on April 30. The day before the Pittsburgh series began, tests showed the blood clot.

Holmgren said then that he had been told the clot would go away in a month or two, but that Timonen almost certainly wouldn't play against Pittsburgh. He said Timonen "had a glimmer of hope that he would be able to come back. But it's [Timonen's] glimmer. Right now, we're treating this as if he will not be available."

Yesterday, Holmgren graphically recounted what he was told when the clot was discovered.

"It got a little scary when they said if he gets hit in the right spot, they might have to cut his foot off," Holmgren said, when asked about the resilience of hockey players at playoff time.

Timonen made it clear yesterday that his clot is still there - he said doctors feel now that the danger of it moving has passed, ending the threat of complications such as amputation. Neither Timonen nor Holmgren could explain exactly how or why that was the case. Timonen said it had to with the clot not moving in the 2-plus weeks since he suffered the injury.

"I've got to trust the doctors," Timonen said. "You know, we go back a week, doctors told me that nobody knows if it's going to be 10 days, 2 weeks, 2 months, 5 months. Nobody knew that. And I went to the hospital [Thursday], I didn't know what to expect. I didn't expect this news . . . I wanted to make sure, and I'm sure everyone else wanted to make sure that there is absolutely no danger at all, because that's not the risk I want to take, and I'm sure nobody wants to take that risk."

Timonen said he still feels the numbness and the cold sensation in his toes, when he skates.

"But at least now I know . . . there's no danger. It's just a matter of how much pain I can take," he said. "I'm sure we've got some medication for pain."

Timonen got the good news from Fairman exactly a week after Fairman told him of the seriousness of the clot - what Timonen called "the most disappointing moment of my life, hockeywise." *