PHILADELPHIA -- Instead of starting in October as scheduled, Erik Gudbranson played his first hockey game of the season last Friday night with the Panthers' minor league affiliate in San Antonio.
Less than a week later, Gudbranson made his season debut with the Panthers.
The Panthers recalled Gudbranson after two games in the minors although he didn't play after a long travel day to Winnipeg on Tuesday.
"Everything is ready to go. I'm in the best shape I could possibly be in to play a game right now,'' said Gudbranson, who was in Florida's lineup Thursday. "I'm definitely very excited to get back in there.''
Gudbranson had a strong rookie year for the Panthers last year and the organization planned on him spending the lockout in San Antonio. Only Gudbranson snapped his shoulder wakeboarding in Canada, an injury that required surgery.
Instead of playing in the minors, Gudbranson had to rehab the shoulder -- on his own, as the Panthers suspended him. Not only didn't he get paid, but he had to find his own medical treatment.
Gudbranson pushed through and rejoined his locked out teammates for informal workouts before the lockout ended. The Panthers finally cleared him to play in games last week and his suspension was over.
To get back into the flow of things, Gudbranson logged heavy minutes in his two games with the Rampage. On Thursday, he was on Florida's top defensive pairing with 2012 All-Star Brian Campbell.
"I needed to get some time in,'' Gudbranson said. "Going to San Antonio was very beneficial. I got to play a lot of quality minutes.''
-- Coach Kevin Dineen mixed things up Thursday, moving Peter Mueller (four goals in the previous five games) up to the top line with Stephen Weiss and Tomas Fleischmann.
Kris Versteeg moved to play with Drew Shore and Jonathan Huberdeau.
"We're always looking to experiment and today is a different day,'' Dineen said. "
Dineen also sat veteran forward Alex Kovalev for the first time this season. "He's brought some good energy,'' said Dineen, who put Jack Skille back in the lineup after sitting him the past two games.
"I have to have composure out there and play good hockey,'' said Skille, who was paired with Tomas Kopecky and Marcel Goc. "It's a good opportunity for me to play with guys like that.''
-- Dineen says it feels strange to be this soon into a season at this time on the calendar. After Thursday, the Panthers had completed 10 games in this 48-game schedule (21 percent).
"Our last game against Philadelphia - what, nine days ago? - seems like a long time ago,'' Dineen said.
"Things are happening. Pitchers and catchers are going to spring training. I saw a commercial for the Masters the other day. My clock is all messed up. Things are happening fast and furious. You have to react to things day by day.''