Chad Starling is feeling it.
It's not obvious by looking at the scoresheet, where Starling has two assists, a minus-8 rating, and 37 penalty minutes in 36 games for the Reign.
Rather, the stay-at-home defenseman is feeling it inside, his health allowing him to play longer and harder at age 29 than at 28, thanks to a nearly-full summer's worth of conditioning.
After being criticized for his inconsistency during the Reign's inaugural season, these days Starling can usually be found in the right place at the right time.
"I was a little more sluggish last year coming off the knee surgery and the thumb surgery," he said. "Last summer, I had the elbow surgery and got the pins out of my thumb. But definitely the rehab time (in 2008) wasn't there as long as last summer."
Starling's job consists of blocking shots, backchecking and protecting his goalie's back - none of which is quantified by the ECHL, but is just as physically taxing as scoring, if not more so. The veteran does this well enough to have made a living in minor-league hockey since he turned pro in 2001.
But the summer of 2008 was unkind to Starling, who wasn't able to rest until after his Cincinnati Cyclones had finished their Kelly Cup championship run in June. Two surgeries set back his training regimen and it was apparent throughout 2008-09, when the defenseman's conditioning was subpar by his own admission.
This year, Reign coach Karl Taylor has noticed the difference.
"He doesn't have to try to pace himself like he did last year," Taylor said of Starling. "It wasn't because he didn't want to be in shape last year - he had a lot of things to deal with. It's no question it's elevated his play. He's been a solid stay-at-home guy. That's what we expect of him."
It's tough to blame the Reign's current 1-8 slump on the defense, which has allowed a respectable 3.33 goals per game during the nine-game stretch. For the season the team has allowed 3.03 goals per game, fourth in the ECHL.
"We just need to get scoring a little more," Taylor said. "We all know that."
Starling also cited the addition of an in-house gym at Citizens Business Bank Arena for part of his new-found fitness. Now that the Reign are embarking on a massive home stretch (16 of their next 22 games are at The Bank), he believes he and his teammates will be in even better shape - both literally and in the standings, where the Reign are one point above Stockton in the National Conference basement.
"It's been good to be able to work hard last summer, put myself in position to come into camp in the best shape I can, and then go from there," he said.
Mike Zacharias has had a lonely existence as the Reign's No. 2 goalie. Starter Curtis Darling leads the ECHL in games played (29) and minutes (1,712), as well as saves (812) and losses (13).
So Zacharias wasn't complaining about the circumstances that allowed him to play the final 10 minutes Saturday, when Darling allowed five goals in a 5-1 loss to the Las Vegas Wranglers.
"It felt good to finally get in there. It's been a while," Zacharias said. "Any minutes I can get right now, I'm happy to take it."
He did not allow a goal on 10 shots in just under 10 minutes of play.
"Mike's had a tough scenario," Taylor acknowledged. "He's not had a lot of opportunity to get minutes so it was a good opportunity to get him minutes under really tough circumstances. He did a great job in those 10 minutes. He handled it very well."
Bud Holloway collected three assists in three games last week for the American Hockey League's Manchester Monarchs, including a pair in the Monarchs' 3-1 victory Saturday over Wilkes-Barre Scranton.
Former Reign netminder Jeff Zatkoff collected his eighth victory of the season in that game, stopping 37 of 38 shots for Manchester.
Geoff Walker had one assist in two games last week for Manchester, and Jon Rheault was held scoreless in three games with the Monarchs.