SAN JOSE -– It took exactly three minutes into his first game in nearly 17 months for Sharks forward Raffi Torres to remind his teammates and the home crowd just what he can bring to the lineup.
Despite indications in the morning that he would play a bit cautiously on his surgically repaired right knee that he tore up two years ago, Torres lined up plodding Coyotes defenseman Nicklas Grossmann in the Sharks' defensive corner. The human heat-seeking missile wearing a number 13 teal sweater plastered Grossmann, knocking the six-foot-four, 230-pounder clean off of his skates.
Torres said after the game that it might not have been the wisest thing to do at this stage of his recovery, but he still made it through the Sharks’ 3-1 preseason win feeling “pretty good” after it was over.
“Biggest mistake I made -- I didn’t feel too fast or too much part of the game after that,” Torres said of the hit. “But I felt alright for the first part. It’s a tough game out there. It’s going to take some time, for sure. I think I expected a little bit more and better things out there in terms of my speed and endurance, but I’ll have to keep working.”
Coach Pete DeBoer reacted to the hit, too. “You knew he was back. He removed all doubt about whether he was going to play cautious or not be the same player that he’s always been. It was nice to see.”
Although he only joined the club over the summer, DeBoer sensed the night was a special one for the 33-year-old winger, who has played in just 12 games since the start of the 2013-14 season. The new Sharks coach put Torres in the starting lineup with Joe Thornton and Joe Pavelski, giving the crowd a moment to cheer extra loudly for the former villain-turned-favorite.
“It’s been a long road for him and I haven’t been around and witnessed it, but a lot of the guys in the room there have,” DeBoer said. “He’s put in a lot of work and a lot of frustration, so it was well deserved.”
Torres said: “I think I’ve said it before, I didn’t realize how much I love the game until you can’t play it anymore. I’ve had a lot of support along the way.”
As far as the rest of the game, the Sharks played some of their key veterans against a mostly young Arizona lineup. Thornton and Pavelski were making their preseason debuts, while the top defense pair of Marc-Edouard Vlasic and Justin Braun saw the most ice time.
Joonas Donskoi continued to impress. Playing with Thornton and Pavelski much of the night, the Finland native potted his first preseason goal at 14:29 of the third period on the power play, giving the Sharks a 3-1 lead that would remain until the horn.
Donskoi had a game-high six shots on goal, and hit the post in the 3-on-3 overtime session that followed regulation. He’s getting more and more comfortable.
“It’s coming more familiar to me,” Donskoi said. “It’s getting I think easier all the time to [not] have to think so much when the system is getting in your head.”
“He’s playing well,” DeBoer said. “We’re not handing out jobs tonight, but he’s playing well.”
Alex Stalock, seeing his first preseason action, excelled. The goalie stopped 25 shots and looked much more comfortable than the player that struggled for most of last season.
On the blue line, Dylan DeMelo tallied two assists, and is seemingly gaining an edge on Mirco Mueller and Matt Tennyson for the sixth defenseman spot. DeMelo was paired with Brenden Dillon for most of the game, while Mueller and Tennyson didn’t look very comfortable individually or as a pair.
The Sharks have now played two strong preseason games in succession, including Tuesday’s 4-0 win in Vancouver. They host Anaheim on Saturday.
DeBoer said: “There [are] some good things going on. There’s still a lot of room for improvement and a lot of work still to be done, but we’re making some progress.”
That includes Torres, who took a substantial step towards becoming an integral part of the team again.