SAN JOSE -- Ask Raffi Torres how he turned into one of the NHL's most notoriously violent hitters, and he talks about being the third youngest of four brothers growing up in Toronto.

"The two older guys were bigger than me, and you always had to keep your guard up," Torres explained. "Physical presence is key out there."

Later, coaches along the way also put an emphasis on physical play.

"They told me that you need to play this way in order to be effective," Torres said, mentioning Peter Laviolette and Ken Hitchcock specifically. "You don't play that way, you're just another body."

But Torres took physical to dangerous levels. He now acknowledges he played the game too recklessly, a lesson hammered home when the NHL suspended him for 25 games last April for leaving his feet and nailing Chicago Blackhawks forward Marian Hossa in the head. That punishment was reduced to 21 games, but Torres -- a repeat offender -- got the point.

Still, getting that point and actually changing one's style on the ice are two different things. And Torres had help with making that change from Phoenix coach Dave Tippett and his staff.

"Yeah, we saw a lot of video, a lot of clips where I'm just as effective a player by taking the body and taking the puck at the same time, going out there and doing that job," Torres said.

He demonstrated that in his first game as a Shark on Sunday with an open-ice hit on Eric Nystrom that saw him redirect the puck in TJ Galiardi's direction. Galiardi capitalized on that with a spin-o-rama move leading to a goal in the 5-4 shootout loss to the Dallas Stars. He gets his next chance Tuesday night when the Sharks open a four-game trip in Columbus.

The hits are still there -- his seven Sunday led players on both teams -- but so far this season he has avoided NHL disciplinarians, who had suspended Torres twice before he hit Hossa and fined him two other times as well.

Torres has never accumulated a lot of penalties, but it's still surprising to note that he has only 13 this season -- fewer than less aggressive Sharks such as Patrick Marleau with 22 and Marty Havlat with 26. And five of Torres' 13 came in the obligatory fight with Jamal Mayers when Phoenix faced Chicago for the first time this season.

So is that part of the transition to a more controlled style of play?

"Yeah, absolutely," Torres said. "I've never really been a big penalty-minute guy, but I noticed they are really low this year. It's such a shortened season that you don't really want to be in the box, giving other teams the opportunity."

The Sharks don't want Torres to change his game entirely. They acquired him to be a physical presence, playing right up to the line of what's acceptable without crossing it.

Torres looks at it similarly.

"I still want to finish hits," he said, " but the last thing I want is another incident like last year."

  • To start another winning streak, the Sharks need a victory at the site of their poorest performance of the season -- a 6-2 loss to the Columbus Blue Jackets on Feb. 11.

    Since then, Columbus has acquired an added offensive threat in forward Marian Gaborik and has legitimate playoff aspirations set back by a two-game losing streak.

    "It can be a good test for us," Joe Pavelski said before leaving San Jose. "They've played hard and well all year to put themselves in this position. They're a different team, but it's still about what we do."

    For more on the Sharks, see David Pollak's Working the Corners blog at blogs.mercurynews.com/sharks. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/PollakOnSharks.

    Tuesday's game
    Sharks (20-11-7) at Columbus (16-16-7), 4 p.m. CSNCA