SAN JOSE, Calif. -- Diehard fans, longtime critics and media pundits agree: There's something different about the San Jose Sharks this year.
"It's the grittiest I've seen them in the playoffs," said NBC analyst and former Shark Jeremy Roenick. "They are a totally different team."
At the heart of the transformation is a soft-spoken veteran who joined the team a month ago after years as a visiting villain in HP Pavilion.
Raffi Torres twice derailed San Jose's playoff hopes as an opponent, injuring Shark players in the process. Now Public Enemy No. 1 is trying to help them get where the franchise has never gone.
"You can't win the Stanley Cup without guys of his nature," Roenick added. "The Sharks have always had the talent, but they needed the grit. Torres has balanced the talent with the grit.
"The way they're playing now, they're going to give anybody a run for the money."
Torres, a 31-year-old left-winger, has a stare that could melt ice and a well-earned reputation as one of the NHL's most feared players. Last spring, as a member of the Phoenix Coyotes, he was suspended 21 games -- one of the longest in league history -- for a brutal late hit to the head of Chicago's Marian Hossa, who was carried off the ice on a stretcher.
But with the help of the Phoenix coaching staff, Torres reined in his game just enough this season to convince the Sharks that he was worth a third-round pick at the April 3 trade deadline.
"He plays the speed game with a high skill level and has a reputation as being a very good teammate," Sharks general manager Doug Wilson said. "He's a player we've tried to (acquire) several times before."
Torres wasted little time winning over many of the fans who long despised him. He converted a shootout goal to beat the rival Los Angeles Kings in mid-April. In Game 1 of the opening-round playoff series against Vancouver, Torres unleashed a team-high six hits. In Game 2, he scored the winning goal.
The Sharks went on to record the first four-game playoff sweep in franchise history.
"The guys in the locker-room have been welcoming, and the fan support has been great," Torres said. "My reputation preceded me, but I just try to focus on what I do."
The son of a Mexican father and Peruvian mother, Torres is one of six Hispanic players in the NHL.
-- San Jose Mercury News