SIMON GAGNE called it perfect timing.

And for some, Jeff Carter's return to the lineup on Saturday for the first time in more than 4 weeks was a shock. Having been cleared for contact 5 days earlier, Ian Laperriere's homecoming was more expected.

In the Stanley Cup playoffs, gruesome injuries and questionable comebacks are the rule - not the exception. Skating with extra padding and protection in his first game since April 20, when he fractured a metatarsal in his right foot when it was struck by teammate Chris Pronger's slap shot, Carter could have been about 75 percent of his normal self.

At best.

Still, Carter at 75 percent can be better than just about any other forward on the Flyers.

"He's our goal scorer," Gagne said. "He scored most of the goals for us this year. So that gives us a lot more options now on the power play or five-on-five.

"It's almost like perfect timing for us to get those two guys back. You're talking about two guys that play a big role on the team."

Carter will play an even bigger role tonight for the Flyers, as they shoot for their first Stanley Cup finals berth since 1997 with a win over the Montreal Canadiens at the Wachovia Center.

For the first few days after his injury - and subsequent surgery that placed a rod in his foot for support - Carter said he didn't do much. He gave up on the possibility that he could play again this season, knowing it would take a deep run by his teammates.

"They basically told me that I was done," he said. "So when they said that, it was pretty discouraging. I wasn't really doing anything. I wasn't working out. Basically, my year was over."

Carter said his main role was playing "cheerleader." He wanted to keep everybody "upbeat."

Then, last Monday, Carter was cleared to resume workouts.

"When I got the call that there might be a chance that I could come back and everything was going pretty good, it was definitely a good feeling," Carter said. "And I got right back to work."

Carter is still wearing a small walking boot on his right foot, an insole in his skate to keep the foot firmly in place and a clear, protective plastic piece over both of his skates to prevent a reoccurring injury.

"I don't think I'm 100 percent," Carter said. "Really, since I started skating I haven't had that much pain. The main thing was the fact that I didn't put pressure on my leg for 4 weeks, so all the muscles in my ankle and my calf, my quad[riceps], there was a lot of atrophy.

"I lost a lot of muscle. The ankle was really the main issue. It was so weak that I'd cross over and it would kind of give out. Every day, it's gotten better."

Carter worked himself back from crutches to working out to skating to game action in a span of just 5 days.

With that came a lot of risk for coach Peter Laviolette. It never hurts to get your leading scorer back. But Carter's return was a big moment in the Flyers' Eastern Conference finals with the Canadiens in terms of on-ice and emotional impact.

Carter and Laperriere's returns meant the Flyers needed to scratch two healthy players, Dan Carcillo and Andreas Nodl. And still leading two games-to-one with Game 4 at the Bell Centre on tap, the Flyers would not have had anything more to throw at Montreal from a mental standpoint if they had lost the game and returned to Philadelphia tied.

It was a calculated risk.

"I told 'Lavi' I could give him a pretty good 10, 12 minutes," Carter said. "And I left it up to him."

Laviolette didn't hesitate.

"There's no question about having Jeff Carter back," Laviolette said. "He was our leading scorer. To get players like that back into your lineup certainly is a boost, not just emotionally, but also from a standpoint of on-ice play."

Carter was not at his best on Saturday, at least not for a large chunk of the game to start. His first shift lasted just 14 seconds as he tested the foot. But he got better as the game wore on.

He said with the fans, the noise and the excitement, you "never feel out of shape."

Carter dangled through the Canadiens' back end during a first-period power play and went in alone on Jaroslav Halak before being stopped. In all, the Flyers' 33-goal scorer from the regular season tied for the team lead in shots and hits with four apiece.

"I think it took a couple of shifts to get my feet underneath me," Carter said. "I was pretty nervous. I didn't want to make a mistake my first couple of shifts.

"It's definitely a work in progress. I love playing hockey, I love being out there. It's definitely getting better."

Now, just one game from a date with the Chicago Blackhawks, seemingly nothing can keep Carter away from making an impact.

"It's tough for any hockey player, injured or healthy. You want to be out there," he said. "I feel I can really help the team. Everything's coming together at the right time."

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