Zdeno Chara  couldn’t hide a fairly incredulous smirk when asked the question while sitting at his locker stall.
“Are you completely healthy? Is everything all right physically?” a reported inquired.
The Norris Trophy winning defenseman cast his head downward and gave his lower body a once over before knocking on wood and saying “everything feels great.”
The 32-year-old was answering performance-related questions for the first time earlier this week after getting off to a bit of a slow start for Chara’s standards. The towering defenseman hasn’t found the back of the net after 12 games — Chara also didn’t score until his 12th game of the season last winter — but of greater concern was a distinct regression in the physicality department. There didn’t seem to be the normal fear factor from opposing forwards buzzing around in Boston’s defensive zone with Chara patrolling out on the ice. A lot of that comes strictly down to a lack of Chara snarl, and it could be attributed to a number of things.
Chara is adjusting to his first season in four years without defenseman partner Aaron Ward , and the veteran contributed mightily to the Norris Trophy winner’s style of play. Chara was free to play with a little more mean and a little more freedom knowing that Ward was going to cover for him, and it takes time to develop such a trust bond with Derek Morris . Perhaps there was even a little bit of satisfaction after getting named the best defenseman in the NHL  last season.
Never was that more obvious than Thursday night when 5-foot-11, 190-pound Zach Parise  beat Chara in a battle behind the boards for possession, and set up the game-winning third period score for the New Jersey Devils . It highlighted a passivity that simply can’t be a part of Chara’s game while the Bruins coaching staff relies on his “give no quarter” nature in the D-zone.
So on Friday Bruins coach Claude Julien  fired up the “Chara signal.” In so many words, Julien indicated that his franchise defenseman had been “just OK” in the first 11 games of the season, and the entire team — including their 6-foot-9 captain — needed to respond to the request for better, more intense effort. The Big Slovakian heeded the call and responded along with the rest of his teammates to a clarion call for more concentrated effort. The B’s mantra is to be “hard to play against” and Saturday afternoon’s 2-0 win against the Oilers was the perfect time to reintroduce themselves to their way of hockey life.
Chara won every puck battle, punished the Edmonton skaters with eight thunderous hits and seemed determined to keep the Oilers forwards aware of his pounding, unrelenting presence at all times. In other words, he played like the 2008-09 version of Zdeno Chara — an imposing figure that’s needed when the intimidating force provided by Milan Lucic  is withdrawn from the lineup.
“I know that when you are one of the top players in the league, ‘good’ is not good enough,” said Chara, who finished with a game-high eight hits. “You have to play almost perfect every game. That’s the way it is. That is what comes with it when you are one of the best players in the league. As a captain you carry the team and you have to accept that, so that’s normal.”
The overpoweringly defensive tone struck early by Chara permeated through the rest of the Boston’s lineup, and the Black and Gold played their most complete, structured game this season. The four lines rolled through a complete 60 minute effort and the B’s dominated time of possession in the Edmonton zone while playing good, sound positional defense in front of Tuukka Rask  in a shutout effort. After two scoreless periods, the offense finally busted through with a pair of opportunistic scores in the third period.
But the uniformity of effort, purpose and intensity gave Boston their best win of the season, and — in Julien’s mind — a great deal of credit goes back to the hockey gauntlet tossed down by their captain early in Saturday’s victory. Chara still finds himself in search of his first goal after his 12th game of the season and he’s still searching for ways to snake the big slap shot through traffic on the power play, but hockey’s version of “The Terminator” proved once again Saturday that he’s much more valuable than statistics.
“The thing with Z, he’s our Captain. He’s our leader,” said Julien. “We keep talking about Norris Trophy, and being deserving of that. His energy and attitiude spreads throughout the team. Certainly it makes our team that much better.
“That’s the responsibility that comes with being that type of player. It’s okay to want to be an elite player, but you have to take on the responsibilities that go along with it. He thrives on that stuff, and I thought he did a great job.”
Chara was up to the challenge in Saturday’s shutout win, and will need to continue answering the call with the victory over the Oilers kicking off a crucial 15 games in 29 days stretch for the B’s. Make or break time for their season is coming up, and Big Z appears to be ready.
With Chara finally back in the saddle, here are two other things we learned in Saturday’s win over the Oilers.
A “TUUUKKKKAAAA” CHANT HAS BEEN BORN
Though he didn’t consciously hear it while locked into his second career NHL  shutout, the TD Garden crowd is beginning to embrace Rask as one of their own. Each time the B’s goalie would snatch a high, hard shot out of the air with his strong glove hand or use his lean, long frame to absorb a puck, the crowd would let out with a low, rumbling “Tuuuuukkkka” chant. The sound initially sounded like booing, and wasn’t all that different from the “Yoooouuuk!” or “Loooooch” chants commonly heard in most partisan Boston sports crowds.
The 22-year-old rookie was worthy of the chants on Saturday afternoon after watching Tim Thomas  start five of the previous six games, and made 19 calm, cool, collected stops en route to his second career shutout. There was nothing flashy or jumpy about Rask’s netminding game, but instead he simply played sound, textbook butterfly style between the pipes and never offered a single crack in his wall of defense.
“I saw the puck really well,” said Rask. “I can’t say there was one shot I didn’t see, and that’s probably more because the [Boston defense] was at its best — and forced those blocking shots that were on net. You’ve got to give a lot of credit to the guys for blocking shots, and really not screening me much at all.”
While Rask saw every piece of vulcanized rubber tossed his way, he didn’t hear the burgeoning chants of his name in the stands. Some of it, Rask thought, might have just been because his distinctly Finnish name has a certain sing-songy ring to it.
“It’s probably because of my name and because it’s so easy to pronounce: Tuukka,” said Rask. “It’s like ‘Looch’. I might have heard it a couple of times in Providence when we won a big game. It’s fun and it’s nice to hear so many people are into the game because that really gives us a boost.”
SOBOTKA AND WHEELER ARE COOKING UP SOMETHING SPECIAL
Forget for a minute that Vladimir Sobotka typified everything Julien and B’s GM Peter Chiarelli preach about being “strong on the puck” when the 22-year-old B’s forward battled along the boards in the third period, and fought through both Theo Peckham and Fernando Pisani to set up Boston’s first goal. The spark plug center was knocked down several times along the boards by both Oilers players, but never gave up possession of the puck and continued working toward making a play.
Somehow Sobotka sensed Blake Wheeler  moving toward the Oilers cage as he battled, and threw a beauty of a backhanded pass to a waiting Wheeler. The B’s second-year forward noticed Edmonton goaltender Nikolai Khabibulin peeking at Sobotka behind the Oilers goal, and Wheeler quickly fired an accurate shot at the net before the goaltender had a chance to reposition himself.
Just like that the Bruins were on the scoreboard, and the score might as well have been 100-0 given the way the B’s were playing mistake-free defense in front of an effective Rask. Wheeler and Sobotka hooked up minutes later for a second goal with Sobotka this time getting the nice feed to deposit into the back of Boston’s net. The two goals capped off an honest day’s work for the trio of Sobotka, Wheeler and Daniel Paille , and made up for a Sobotka score that failed to beat the buzzer at the end of the second period.
“The last two games [before Saturday] he’s had like 13 hits or something. I don’t know what he had [against the Oilers] but I talked to him before the game and said it’s great if you get five or six hits — but let’s try to score. He’s tearing up the AHL, he’s a very talented offensive player, so let’s just get three or four hits and a goal and an assist. That’ll be a good night.
“We tried to focus a bit more on the offensive side. [Sobotka] works so hard every single night, that it was just a matter of getting rewarded.”