SAN JOSE -- Raffi Torres is back, baggage in hand.

The hard-hitting Sharks forward with the reputation for playing on the edge -- and sometimes over it -- is expected to be in the lineup for the first time this season Thursday night when San Jose begins its post-Olympic stretch run against the Philadelphia Flyers.

An accidental collision in a September exhibition game tore the anterior cruciate ligament in Torres' right knee, and the recovery and rehab process after surgery has taken five months. But the reality is that it's been nine months since Torres last played in a meaningful game, having been suspended during the playoffs for what the NHL deemed a dangerous hit against Jarret Stoll of the L.A. Kings.

Torres knows he won't be getting the benefit of any doubt from the league -- "Obviously, the history of my game is going to precede me," he said -- but he also is determined to maintain the high-energy, physical brand of hockey that made him a valuable acquisition from the Phoenix Coyotes at the trade deadline last April.

"It's playing hard, fast hockey -- the way I was taught," Torres said Tuesday before the Sharks departed for Philadelphia. "I just need to be a little smarter out there, learn from my mistakes and hopefully finish off the rest of my career without any suspensions."


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Torres, 32, has earned his reputation for crossing the line -- hard-hitting, or dirty? -- with four suspensions since April 2011 as well as a handful of other serious hits that went unpunished. Among those was one that gave then-Sharks forward Milan Michalek a concussion in the 2006 playoffs when Torres was an Edmonton Oiler.

But after being suspended for 25 games in the 2012 playoffs for an elbow to the head of Chicago's Marian Hossa, Torres and the Coyotes made a concerted effort to more clearly establish the line between right and wrong on the ice.

The Sharks thought Torres stayed on the right side of that line when he hit Stoll in the second period of Game 1, but the NHL disagreed. Sharks general manager Doug Wilson stood behind his player, receiving a $100,000 fine for publicly questioning the league's action. He then signed Torres to a three-year, $6 million contract extension.

Now, once again, Torres has to concentrate on being effective without drawing the league's wrath.

"I need to be me, but instead of going for that big east-west hit, just rub the guy out," he said, using hockey's term for taking an opponent out of a play rather than crushing him. "Maybe get the stick on puck a little more instead of trying to get the big hit and not caring where the puck goes."

Sharks coach Todd McLellan won't go as far as saying the NHL has a double standard when it comes to Torres, but he recognizes that the NHL keeps a close eye on repeat offenders.

"With each suspension comes a heightened awareness of an individual. Raffi knows that, we know that, everybody knows that," McLellan said. "He can play hard, he can play even nasty -- but within the rules. Raffi doesn't go out to play outside the rules. He goes out to play hard."

And his message to Torres?

"We want him to push, we want him to be aggressive, we want him to play his game," McLellan said. "But we want him to be able to finish the season."

Last spring, Torres gave the Sharks an emotional lift and also chipped in with six points in 11 games. The Sharks, including Torres, warn that an immediate encore is not to be expected.

"Bringing Raffi back in the lineup is a great thing. It will give our guys a big boost," McLellan said. "But we also have to look at it realistically. His training camp was cut short, he hasn't played in any of our first 59 games, his practice load has just gone up recently. It will take him some time."

Torres is likely to start at left wing on the third line with Joe Pavelski and Tyler Kennedy, but McLellan has other options. In San Jose's playoff sweep of the Vancouver Canucks, for example, many of his shifts were on the second line with Patrick Marleau and Logan Couture, another key forward who is returning after missing 16 games following hand surgery.

Forward Tommy Wingels endorses the idea that teammates follow Torres' lead when it comes to a high-speed, physical game.

"Raffi plays with as much energy as anyone in this league does with the way he skates," said Wingels, who leads San Jose with 154 hits in Torres' absence. "Other guys see him maybe going hard on the forecheck or finishing checks, and they want to hop on board."

In whatever way he can contribute, Torres said, the time is now.

"I feel as good as I'm going to feel practicing and working out," he said. "It's time to play some games."

THURSDAY'S GAME
Sharks (37-16-6) at Philadelphia (30-23-6), 4 p.m. CSNCA