It had to be two of the longest minutes of Raffi Torres' life. With time running out in the Jackets' track meet with the Edmonton Oilers on Wednesday, Torres was called for a slash and had to sit painfully still watching his new teammates go on a crucial penalty kill against his old team.
"Dying" is how he described his time in the sin bin.
The script did have a happy ending. Torres, playing in just his third game of the season, survived the penalty, went hard to the Oiler net and took two shots on Dwayne Roloson before Manny Malhotra batted in the decisive goal in a 5-4 thriller. It had to be a huge relief for Torres on so many levels. The penalty didn't haunt him and he picked up his second assist of the night en route to earning the game's second star.
But most of all, Torres, the 6-0, 223-pound, red-haired bulldog acquired from the Oilers in exchange for Gilbert Brule last July, was back contributing on the ice following what was essentially a lost year. A season-ending knee injury last December limited him to just 32 games in 2007-08 and hurting his shoulder in the preseason was hardly the way he hoped to start his career in Columbus.
"It hasn't been easy," says Torres.
But his time away did produce a revelation.
"I've almost found a new love for the game," he says. "I'm at the rink two hours earlier than I should be. It's just fun to come to the rink after being away for so long."
The Jackets are beginning to see what Torres can bring to this team. The Brampton, Ont. native, who is of both Mexican and Peruvian descent, has a collection of tools to play the game, be it his deft offensive skills or his ability to deliver a punishing hit on the forecheck.
Torres lit the lamp regularly in his three years of junior with the Brampton Battalion. But he dressed in just 31 games over his first two seasons with the New York Islanders, the franchise that drafted him fifth overall in 2000. A trade to Edmonton in 2003 changed his fortunes and Torres became a key offensive contributor, averaging 22 goals in his first three seasons with the Oilers despite receiving a limited amount of ice time.
"He's a great passer, he shoots the puck well and he's got great hockey sense. When you put it all that together, it makes him a pretty easy guy to play with." - Center Michael Peca on Raffi Torres
That kind of productivity would be welcomed in Columbus, where Torres is finding a home on a line with a familiar face, Michael Peca. The two first got to know each other on the Islanders in Peca's first year there. They played on a line together and then reprised the partnership in Edmonton in 2005-06, when the Oilers made a run to game 7 of the Stanley Cup.
The formula for them, Peca says, is simple – go forward, make plays in the neutral zone and be responsible defensively.
"Sometimes personalities blend together," says Peca. "We talk comfortably with one another, we have a great feel for each other's games. We're always offering each other some suggestions for our games to tweak it here and there.
"He's a great passer, he shoots the puck well and he's got great hockey sense. When you put it all that together, it makes him a pretty easy guy to play with."
Torres says that the presence of Peca and other former Oiler teammates Jason Chimera and Jan Hejda have certainly helped him transition to a new dressing room, city and life.
"It was a pretty easy adjustment coming to this team and knowing a few guys," he says. "It's a good team here, a lot of good guys. It seems like everyone wants to work hard and get the job done."
That will be key to Torres' success in Columbus. For a player that combines the skill and physicality to impact a game, he knows that he has to do it night in and night out.
Torres is maturing both as a pro and also away from the rink. He says getting married this past summer has had a big influence on him, enabling him to settle down.
New surroundings aside, his life is stable and he's ready to contribute.
"I'm definitely trying to bring a more consistent game to the table here," says Torres. "That's been my problem is being inconsistent.
"I feel like you always have to prove yourself. You always want to earn the respect of your teammates, whether it's finishing a hit, scoring a goal or just hanging out at practice doing a little extra work.
"Anything I can do to let these guys know I'll go to battle for them every night."