Nathan Cleary has eased back from injury for Penrith in a 34-16 win to all but end St George Illawarra's NRL finals hopes.
The halfback hadn't played since suffering a labrum tear in his right shoulder in NSW's State or Origin series-clinching win on June 27.
He showed no signs of the complaint in a confident return though, defending without hesitation and kicking well as Penrith overcame a sloppy start to defeat the Dragons comfortably.
Penrith's only concern will be if their star man is reported for a shoulder charge, for a hit on Jack Bird that went unpunished in the second half.
The Dragons' fifth-straight loss will likely leave them two wins outside the top eight with three rounds to play with games against the Sydney Roosters, North Queensland and South Sydney to come.
Cleary's return didn't instantly transform the Panthers, who completed just one full set compared to the Dragons' nine in the opening 20 minutes.
But Penrith still led 6-0 when Brent Naden juggled and intercepted a Corey Norman pass to race 90 metres to score.
The Penrith errors kept coming and finally the Dragons took advantage when Zac Lomax found an offload for Mikaele Ravalawa, despite seemingly being wrapped up by three Panthers.
Lomax drilled the sideline conversion ato draw the score level, but Penrith had another Norman intercept to thank when Naden crossed again.
Dylan Edwards then spun over after Liam Martin's ferocious hit-up had cleared the path as Penrith built a 16-6 half-time lead.
They returned a more typical Panthers unit, Cleary drilling kicks into the corners before Matt Burton set up Edwards' second and then barged over for one himself.
Paul Momirovski added another before Bird and impressive teenager Talatau Amone scored consolation tries for the Dragons.
Penrith play the Rabbitohs, Wests Tigers and Parramatta before the finals.Internet Explorer Channel Network