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Howard, Martin, appear headed towards another showdown at Trials

More and more, the Tim Hortons Canadian Curling Trials – men’s division – at Rexall Place is assuming a familiar appearance.

It’s one curling observers saw at the 2007 Brier, and the 2008 Brier, and the 2009 Brier.  Which is to say, Martin and Howard. Or, if you prefer, Howard and Martin.  Heading into Thursday’s final two rounds of the eight-team argument, it’s Howard (5-and-0) and Martin (4-and 1).

Howard put a lock on at least of playoff look-see Wednesday afternoon by extending his undefeated streak with a 7-6 extra-end conquest of Edmonton’s Kevin Koe.

Howard, playing with Richard Hart, Brent Laing and Craig Savill, faces Edmonton’s two other contenders, Randy Ferbey and Martin, in games Thursday morning (8:30) and evening (6 bells).

Martin remained in contention for a shot at that all-important first place finish and the bye to the championship final by dispensing with arch-rival Ferbey 9-5 in a ballyhooed matchup that failed to live up to its heavyweight promise.

The Ferb remained in contention for a crack at the playoffs with a 3-2 record, alongside Koe and Winnipeg’s Jeff Stoughton, who drilled winless Winnipeg protégé Jason Gunnlaugson 8-4.  In one other game, Toronto’s Wayne Middaugh won his first in five starts, 7-5 over Pat Simmons of Davidson, SK., who was losing his fourth in five tries.

Thursday’s showdown schedule:

Howard (5-0) — 8:30 a.m. vs. Ferbey; 6 p.m. vs. Martin.
Martin (4-1) — 8:30 a.m. vs. Koe; 6 p.m. vs. Howard.
Ferbey (3-2) — 8:30 a.m. vs. Howard, 6 p.m. vs. Koe.
Koe (3-2) — 8:30 a.m. vs. Martin; 6 p.m. vs. Ferbey.
Stoughton (3-2) — 8:30 a.m. vs. Middaugh; 6 p.m. vs. Simmons.

Undefeated Martin and once-beaten Howard were sailing along at last year’s Brier in Calgary until the final round, when Martin stole an insurance point in the last end for a 7-5 win.

Their subsequent collision, in the Page One-Two playoff, was an even tighter-fit, with Martin prevailing 7-6 in an extra end. The back-to-back games for both teams rank among the most memorable in Brier history.

In the end, the two losses shook up Howard to the point he bowed 8-6 to Stoughton in the semi-final. Stoughton then suffered a 10-4 walloping from Martin the Brier final.

“I still talk about those games,” Howard was saying the other day. “They were two of the best I’ve been involved in, although I thought we were snake-bitten in the second one.”

Said Martin, “I’d say we’re even overall. We got him those two times at the Brier but he beat us at Brooks this year. It’s always back and forth and the games are so good. Glenn’s last one at Brooks, he made about a 15-foot raise-double to go an extra end.

“Without question those two at Calgary were so much fun to play. And Glenn was right. Had we lost that playoff, you remember it came down to about an inch, boy would we have been really tired to play in that semi. But we were able to rest up and get ready for Stoughton.

“Glenn went to the semi and didn’t play like himself because he was just beat. Because our two games in a row were just brutal, mentally. Just brutal. He was whacked.”

Howard continued to like his chances after drawing the can with his last rock of the extra against Koe. Lead Savill set up the end and the open shot for Howard by executing perfect chip shots on two guards to open it.

“I threw a whack of draws this game and I really felt confident on the last one,” said the Coldwater skip. “Craig makes the two chips and I’m in a real comfort zone.”

Koe executed a clutch carom two score two in the 10th to tie.

“The shot was unbelievable.,” said Howard. “When I locked it in there I thought I might not even have to throw.  But 5-0 is absolutely surreal right now. And the ice has never been better. There’s a huge difference between first and second here so we have to come out strong again tomorrow.”

Koe agreed Savill’s extra-end pair killed his hopes.

“It was difficult after he set them up so well,” said the skip from Grande Prairie, playing with an Edmonton team. “We couldn’t get much going after that. They never missed a shot after that. We had a couple of opportunities earlier but we didn’t capitalize.”

Koe estimated two wins on Thursday was mandatory for his team. So did Ferbey. So did Stoughton.

“I don’t know the math but the way it’s looking I’d say we have to win both games,” allowed Koe.

Martin said he was looking for one more win to solidify a playoff spot.  “One more and we should be there,” he said. “Five was our goal right from the start. Then you go to the next goal — 6-and-1. It’s the old story, get to the weekend and play as hard as you can, take chances like crazy and hope you get somewhere.”

Ferbey admitted his old foe “got away early and when you’re down and a half-inch on the wrong side, it’s trouble”. They (Martin’s team) are making all their shots. Right now, they’re getting their rocks lined up perfect for them. We’re not.”

Stoughton said the first two panels in his game were tight.

“They were a bit of a struggle but after we got out of that tied we didn’t miss much.  If we win our two games tomorrow . . .we’ll . . . you never know but we should be close. We’re hoping for a big log jam. We need five wins. I don’t think 4-and-3 is going to get you anything here. But we’re playing a couple of teams with nothing to lose so we’re not out of the woods. Sometimes its better to play a team that has to win.”