VANCOUVER – It’s the national anthems Raffi Torres enjoys the most.
Those few moments of calm before the storm allow the veteran Vancouver Canuck forward to soak up the atmosphere. It lets him appreciate something he thought he might never experience again.
“The anthems are the best part for me, looking around, especially at home,” Torres said Thursday, after the Canucks practised at the Doug Mitchell Thunderbird Sports Centre on the University of British Columbia campus.
“When the crowd starts signing, you see the smiles and all the kids. It’s magical.”
The Canucks are preparing to play in their first NHL Western Conference final in 17 years. Most of the players are anxious for the best-of-seven series against the San Jose Sharks to begin Sunday (CBC, 8 p.m. ET).
Torres is in no hurry. He wants to saviour every moment of these playoffs, something he didn’t do when he was part of the Edmonton Oilers’ run to the 2006 Stanley Cup final. That ended with Edmonton losing in Game 7 to the Carolina Hurricanes.
“I never realized how hard it was to get back to where we are,” said Torres.
“Back in ’06, I just took it for granted. The next year we came in (and thought) we would repeat what we did. It was a big wake-up call.”
The Oilers have not made it back to the playoffs since losing that final. Torres’ career has also sailed close to the rocks.
Torres left Edmonton after the 2008 season and had stops in Columbus and Buffalo.
When Vancouver offered the 29-year-old a one-year, US$1-million free-agent contract in August, Torres looked like a spare part. He has evolved into a cog in the Canuck machine.
“He’s a good little ball of energy,” said centre Ryan Kesler, the best Canuck on the ice during Vancouver’s win over the Nashville Predators in the conference semifinal.
“It seems like he never gets tired out there. He’s always looking for that game-changing hit. He chips in offensively. He provides a lot of energy for this team and he’s respected by this team.”
There’s nothing fancy about Torres’ game. The six-foot, 215-pound Toronto native plays crash and smash. In 11 playoff matches he has one goal, one assist and 17 hits while averaging 10:26 of ice time.
That’s what the Canucks want.
“Raffi is a physical force,” said associate coach Rick Bowness. “From the top of the faceoff circle down in the offensive zone, you’d better have your head up.
“He’s always very strong on going to the net hard, which makes a goaltenders’ life a little more miserable. He’s got a heavy shot. He’s a strong, physical force for us and that’s an important component.”
Torres had four goals and 11 points in 22 games back in 2006. To him it was a blur.
“Everything was just flying by,” he said. “There was so much stuff going on.
“I had a bigger role back (then) than I do now. I still feel like I can get back to that level.”
Torres’ lone goal of the playoffs came in a Game 5 loss against Nashville. It was his first in the playoffs since 2006.
“When you are slumping and not scoring, it’s tough,” said Torres. “To help this team out you feel like if you’re not putting up some numbers you are not contributing.
“The main thing is to stay focused. There are other things I can do here to contribute and help this team.”
The Canucks have been off since Monday, waiting for the winner of the Detroit-San Jose series, which the Sharks won in seven games after the Red Wings erased a 3-0 series deficit.
The team took a couple of days off before returning to practice.
“It’s been nice to get a few days where we can relax and work on a few things,” said captain Henrik Sedin.
Goaltender Roberto Luongo said the extra practice will allow the Canucks to polish parts of their game that have become tarnished.
“These next few days are going to be real important to get back into the groove and work on some things,” said Luongo. “We can refine a few things on the ice as a group and get ready to go for the third round.”
Torres had 14 goals, 15 assists and 78 penalty minutes in 80 games for the Canucks this season.
He was suspended for the final two games of the regular season and the first two games of the playoffs for a hit to the head of Edmonton Oilers’ rookie Jordan Eberle.
His take-no-prisoners’ style got Torres into trouble in the first round of the playoffs against the Chicago Blackhawks.
He was given a two-minute penalty for a shoulder to the head of Brent Seabrook, causing the Chicago defenceman to miss two games. The Hawks were angry Torres was not suspended and used the hit as a rallying cry.
Sedin said Torres supplies an edge Vancouver needs.
“The hits he has made, that sometimes gets him into trouble, I think that’s a good thing to have on your team,” said Sedin. “It keeps the other team on their toes.
“He’s a guy, if you play against him, you really can’t relax on the ice.”
The Canucks have given Torres another opportunity to win the Stanley Cup. Torres also understands it might be his last chance.
“It’s the second time around,” Torres said. “Like I said, it could be the last time. I have been saying how appreciative I am of being in this situation.
“It’s not our goal just to be in the final four here. It’s to get to the big dance and win it.”