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Test will determine if Gagne can play for Flyers tonight

SIMON GAGNE said he was surprised how good he felt. Just a few days after limping around on crutches at the Skate Zone, Gagne was back on the ice with his teammates.

SIMON GAGNE said he was surprised how good he felt. Just a few days after limping around on crutches at the Skate Zone, Gagne was back on the ice with his teammates.

His teammates were surprised to see him yesterday, less than 2 weeks removed from a surgery that inserted two screws into his right big toe.

It really is amazing what a 3-0 deficit in the Eastern Conference semifinals can heal.

"When I started walking on it, it felt really good," Gagne said. "The pain has gotten better and better and that's why we decided to put a skate on and see if it fit."

Gagne swears, though, that the timing has nothing to do with the fact that his team's playoff life will be hanging in the balance tonight at the Wachovia Center as the Flyers try to avoid being swept in a best-of-seven series for the first time since the 1997 Stanley Cup finals.

Gagne had an MRI done last Friday to determine the healing progress of the toe he fractured when blocking a shot on April 20 in the Flyers' first-round series against New Jersey. Flyers general manager Paul Holmgren said then that Gagne was still out "indefinitely."

A team source told the Daily News that Gagne will have a followup MRI this morning to determine if skating yesterday displaced the perfectly set but still fragile bone in his foot. If his toe bone did not shift, Gagne will be cleared to play.

Undoubtedly because of the Flyers' do-or-die situation, Gagne jumped the gun. The Flyers are dying for a boost - from somewhere, from anywhere.

Unlike Ian Laperriere (brain contusion) or Jeff Carter (fractured metatarsal), Gagne was the only Flyer available to return without too much risk. Gagne could help tip the scoring scales in the Flyers' favor since the Bruins will be without Marco Sturm and David Krejci.

"I'm a little bit surprised with the way I felt," Gagne explained. "It's a process. Actually, I'm surprised to go from crutches to walking in a couple days and go skating afterward. The swelling went down and I was able to put my feet on the floor. So we decided to go see the doctor and get the OK early rather than [today] to see how I felt on the ice."

There is no guarantee Gagne will play tonight. He would not make any promises and Holmgren said it depends on how he feels today.

Gagne was one of the Flyers' best forwards in the stretch leading up to the playoffs, posting 10 goals and four assists in the post-Olympic break schedule.

Still, even if he isn't counted on to score against the Bruins tonight - should he play - Gagne may best serve his team as a potential threat in the lineup, to open things up for the other scorers.

Claude Giroux scored four goals in the first round but hasn't lit the lamp a single time in the first three games of this series. He has continually been matched against Boston's top two defensive pairs.

Mike Richards and Danny Briere have scored four of the Flyers' seven goals against Boston. And they can't do it all themselves.

Flyers coach Peter Laviolette said Gagne's presence would "absolutely" balance out his lines.

"Certainly, I think when players come back and are available," Laviolette said, "you can get more stability in your lines."

Gagne said he felt rusty, having not skated in 2 weeks. But Laviolette thought he looked fine.

"He's a pretty smooth guy," Laviolette quipped. "Skating and passing, I thought he looked good. Shooting, he looked good. When a player gets away from the game for a little bit, it's probably more conditioning and the timing of the game than anything else."

Gagne's teammates said it was a "pleasant surprise" to see him back on the ice.

"He is a big part of this hockey team," Brian Boucher said. "I didn't know he was coming along that quickly. To get a guy like him back would be a big boost."

Boost or not, Gagne doesn't think his team is done. Not yet. He wants to try to help his teammates do something no NHL team has been able to do since the 1975 New York Islanders.

"We're right there," Gagne insisted. "It's not like we're getting outplayed by Boston. The chances were very good for us. When you have injuries, you need to deal with it and play through it."

You can bet he will try.

For more news and analysis, read Frank Seravalli's blog, Frequent Flyers, at http://go.philly.com/frequentflyers.

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