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Gary Mason

How Raffi got his groove back Add to ...

There was a time in these NHL playoffs when Raffi Torres found himself lost. If you've followed this postseason at all, you can likely imagine when it was.

Just back from a four-game suspension for a regular-season, blindside hit on Jordan Eberle, Torres entered the playoffs in Game 3 against Chicago. In the second period, he levelled Blackhawks defenceman Brent Seabrook behind the Chicago net with a shoulder-to-head hit that temporarily knocked the Canadian Olympic gold medalist out of the playoffs.

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Reaction to the hit was swift, fierce and mostly unkind to Torres, even though he received only a minor penalty for interference on the play.

He was called out by the sports commentariat everywhere, including in Vancouver. Most people believed he deserved another suspension. (He didn't get one.) He was called a goon and compared to the league's most despised player, Matt Cooke. His growing legion of critics said the Canucks couldn't afford to play him in another playoff game.

Torres stood silent throughout the firestorm, refusing to talk about the incident or acknowledge the malevolent adjectives ascribed to him and his game.

But try as he might, Torres could not block out the deluge of criticism heaped on him.

"You know how it is in Vancouver," Torres said after his team's 3-2 Game 1 win over San Jose Sunday. "Even if you don't want to hear anything, you do. And I think I took a lot of that stuff the wrong way."

It was around this time that, on the ice at least, Torres temporarily vanished.

It was fairly evident what was going on. Torres was brought into the Vancouver lineup to add some muscle. If he found his scoring touch, that would be a bonus. But mostly he was supposed to use his speed and size to frighten opposing defencemen and force them to cough up the puck. It was by plowing people over that Torres made players twitchy, prone to get rid of the puck quicker than they might have otherwise.

But amid the maelstrom created by his suspension and hit on Seabrook, he didn't know what to do. He looked as if he were afraid to be his old, menacing self because, when someone plays with that kind of wide-eyed, reckless abandon, there is often a fine line between a legal hit and one, in the new NHL, that can lead to comparisons with the league's most hated players.

"I just started thinking too much out there," Torres said this week. "So I sat down with A.V. [Canucks coach Alain Vigneault]and he said: 'Just go out and play the way you play.' "

Unless he did, Torres was not going to be effective. Unless he did, Torres would not be playing in the NHL beyond this season. And while it didn't happen instantly, the 10-year veteran did eventually find the game that made him so valuable to the Canucks this season.

Torres and his third-line mates, Jannik Hansen and Maxim Lapierre, were one of the central storylines to emerge from Sunday's series opener. The three combined on an important second-period goal that tied the game 1-1. Maybe most importantly, the line ate up key minutes after the Canucks established a lead while pounding the San Jose defence.

It's hard to imagine the line's Western final debut doing anything but giving it more confidence heading into Game 2 on Wednesday.

Torres has a unique perspective on the role a third line can play in a long playoff run. This has undoubtedly helped inspire the performance we have mostly seen from him in these playoffs.

In 2006, Torres was a flashy, top-rung forward with the Edmonton Oilers when the team went on an unexpected march to the Stanley Cup final. While eventually losing to Carolina in Game 7, Torres recalls it was often the team's bottom six forwards who were counted on to be the difference during that improbable spring campaign.

"One of the things I remember about that run is our third and fourth-line guys always chipping in," Torres said. "That is exactly the kind of team effort you need to win."

The Canucks are hoping that a similar effort from their third line takes them on a similar run - only one with a happier ending.

Editor's Note: Brent Seabrook of the Chicago Blackhawks was hit by Raffi Torres of the Vancouver Canucks in Game 3 of the Vancouver-Chicago playoff series. An incorrect first name appeared on Tuesday.

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