SAN JOSE -- Die-hard fans, longtime critics and media pundits agree: There's something different about the 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 wing, 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 25 games (shortened to 21 on appeal) -- 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. Ultimately, the goal is to win games."
The son of a Mexican father and Peruvian mother, Torres is one of six Hispanic players in the NHL. He attributes his physical style to growing up in Toronto, where he had to be tough "going up against the big boys."
Off the ice, he's an unassuming father and husband whose wife, Gianna, "has trouble getting three words out of me."
His reputation for brutality overshadows a high level of speed and skill that made Torres a first-round pick (No. 5 overall) in the 2000 NHL draft. He has played for seven teams, been to the Stanley Cup finals twice and amassed 255 career points.
Around these parts, Torres is best known for two collisions. In 2006, his vicious open-ice hit to the head of the Sharks' Milan Michalek turned a playoff series in Edmonton's favor. Two years ago, while playing for Vancouver, Torres separated Joe Thornton's shoulder with a hard but clean hit in Game 4 of the Western Conference finals. The Sharks were eliminated the next game.
Those incidents helped make Torres one of the three greatest villains in Sharks history, according to longtime television play-by-play announcer Randy Hahn.
"He's up there with Theo Fleury and Chris Pronger," Hahn said. "Fleury had an incident with Sharky, and when you get into it with a mascot you're always asking for trouble from the fans. Pronger was just a big, mean villain."
Hahn was thrilled when the Sharks acquired Torres in early April.
"My reaction was, 'Thank you,' " Hahn said. "He's a guy we've needed for years. We've already seen in a few weeks how much he's changed the dynamic."
Torres arrived one day after the Sharks traded veteran forward Ryane Clowe. Like Torres, Clowe was known as a punishing player, but there is a key difference.
"With Clowe, speed is one of his deterrents; Torres is very fast," Roenick said. "When (the Sharks) got him, I thought it was a phenomenal pickup."
Thornton was optimistic about joining forces with the player who separated his shoulder two years ago.
"He's a great skater," the Sharks captain said. "You definitely have to be aware when he's on the ice."
Wilson acknowledged that Torres made "some bad choices and paid the penalty, but he has learned from it."
Torres, whose penalty minutes have plunged this season, had no choice.
"I had to change my game to stay in the league," he said.
Torres is no longer on the edge. He's using his speed and skill to make big plays, frustrate opponents.
The same fans who used to boo him mercilessly at HP Pavilion are now his biggest supporters.