Western Conference teams take note – Raffi Torres is back to his old self.
Torres has endured a tough first season in Columbus with injuries robbing him of several games. But with the Jackets playing their most important hockey ever, the red-headed pit bull from Toronto, Ontario is showing serious bite.
"I'm starting to get my hands back, starting to get my legs back," says Torres, a soft-spoken guy off the ice who transforms into a monster when the puck drops. "The hockey sense is there, too.
"It was frustrating at points, not being 100 percent. But I'm just trying to put that behind me now. I'm feeling good every day. I'm in the gym working hard. I think the off days are helping me on the ice."
"When you need (Raffi) the most, he always comes through. (GM Scott Howson) said he was going to have some times where he's not a factor but when you need him, he will always be a factor." - Head Coach Ken Hitchcock
Torres is becoming an influential force with the sixth-place Blue Jackets. The combination of physicality and scoring that the 223-pounder brings is welcome for the red-hot team, with no better example than his two-goal outburst against the Florida Panthers that earned Columbus an improbable two points earlier this week.
With a marker in a 5-0 drubbing of Calgary last night, Torres has eight goals in the past 13 games. And for those keeping score, Columbus is a perfect 10-0-0 in games that he bulges the twine. Of his 11 goals on the season, five have been game winners.
Head coach Ken Hitchcock isn't surprised. GM Scott Howson, who acquired Torres from the Edmonton Oilers in exchange for Gilbert Brule, told the coach what to expect from the passionate player.
"Scott told us this is what was going to happen with him," says Hitchcock. "When you need him the most, he always comes through. He said he was going to have some times where he's not a factor but when you need him, he will always be a factor. And that's exactly what's happened.
"When Modin and Chimera went out long term, we needed him and he's more than stepped up."
Hitchcock sees a potential 30-goal scorer in Torres. He has always made the most of his ice time but the coach specifically likes Torres' ability to bury the puck from distance, as well as his penchant for going to the net on the power play, which he's done with great success lately.
And he doesn't mind banging.
"We don't have a lot of players that can score from the top of the circle like he can," says Hitchcock. "He gets a bead on you, he's a tough guy, he plays really rough and tumble. He's used to this time of the year.
"He's made a huge difference for us."
Torres sat out the first 10 games of the season with an injured right shoulder and then missed another 19 straight from December 4 to January 19 because of knee surgery. He slowly worked his way back into the rotation before notching a satisfying GWG against his old Oiler buddies in a 1-0 road win on February 26.
Torres points to the Jackets' wild 5-4 win over the L.A. Kings on March 3 as a personal turning point. He had a goal and an assist but more importantly, felt good physically.
"I've skated with more confidence since then," says Torres, who also accounted for recent game winners in victories over Boston and Chicago.
Torres thinks the time off this season is actually going to be beneficial in terms of stamina. He says his body is strong, though the challenge right now is more mental than physical.
That's good news given the toll on players this time of year. Torres has of course been through it before. His lone shot at the playoffs came during Edmonton's run to the Stanley Cup Finals in the 2005-06 season. Torres played in 22 playoff games that spring, scoring four times to go along with seven assists (one of the goals, not surprisingly, was a game winner).
He says that the feeling in the Columbus room right now is similar to that Edmonton team. Both were young, hungry groups that were well aware of what they could accomplish if everyone played to their potential
"We know that we're going to be the judges of our fate," says Torres. "Guys are excited, guys are upbeat. We know we can win now, we know we can beat any team. "It's just a matter of what we put on the ice."