Suddenly, but not surprisingly, it’s a three-way race at the front of the Tim Hortons Brier preliminary round robin at the John Labatt Centre.
The front-running favourites — Alberta, Manitoba and Ontario — headed into Wednesday’s penultimate round of draws with identical 6-and-1 records.
The leaders were one game up on Newfoundland/Labrador (5-2) while Saskatchewan (4-3) remained two games in arrears.
Ontario’s Glenn Howard, who is accustomed to reeling off winning streaks at Briers, won his sixth straight on Tuesday night, calling a halt to Manitoba’s six-game unbeaten skein with a methodical 7-4 conquest of the Winnipeg team skipped by Jeff Stoughton.
Howard stole two points in the fourth end for a 4-zip advantage that was never threatened when the 47-year-old Stoughton twice wrecked on guards with his shots. Howard had opened with a deuce the end previously after blanking the first two.
“That was pretty costly,” admitted the Manitoba skipper afterward.
“You missed by a quarter-inch-to-an-inch twice like that and it’s going to cost you. Those were two big points. Four down was really tough. It was one end where we were an inch off here and there and you can’t do that against these good teams.”
Howard was happy with his team’s accelerated performances.
“We played really well in that game and caught Jeff on a couple of bad ones,” he assessed.
“It gets us to six. If Jeff had beaten us he’d get two more wins and two less losses and you start to think there’s no way to catch him. Now it’s conceivable that we have a shot at the One-Two playoff. We get to control our own destiny. You lose two or three and you can’t.”
Howard experienced something new on a sheet of curling ice in the afternoon.
He played seven ends without the hammer and then scored three points with it in the eighth frame to stun Newfoundland’s Brad Gushue 6-1.
“Never in my life have I gone that long without the hammer,” said Howard with a grin. “But that had to be a good thing. You can’t be down too much as long as that’s going on”
Gushue blanked three ends but Ontario scored first in the fourth and stole two more in the fifth.
“We tried to keep it simple because we haven’t been very successful getting leads set up,” explained Gushue.
“But we weren’t very crisp, flashing hits, missing draws . . . I missed that draw in the fifth. Then in the next end we couldn’t hit the rings for some reason. It was very strange.”
His in-turn draw in the fifth to roughly six feet curled and died with Howard sitting two counters.
The Newfoundland crew finally gave up the hammer in the seventh, taking a single. Howard executed two killer shots in the eighth to double his score and settle the issue.
“We have nobody to blame but ourselves,” said the 30-year-old Olympic gold medallist of 2006. “It was just poor executions, poor throws, poor communication, there was a lot of stuff that went wrong.”
Gushue (4-2), who knocked off Alberta’s Kevin Martin on Monday night after he’d racked up 30 straight Brier wins, rebounded Tuesday night to defeat Jamie Koe’s Polar gang (2-5) from Yellowknife 8-3.
In other late-finishing affairs, Saskatchewan’s Steve Laycock won his second of the day, 8-7 over Eddie MacKenzie’s lowly P.E.I. crew (12-6) while Cotter of Vernon posted his second win in seven starts, 7-5 over New Brunswick’s fading James Grattan (2-5).
Alberta’s Kevin Martin took off the nightshift after a pair of wins earlier in the day.
Exhibiting what skip Martin defined as a “lot more energy in our team”, Alberta defeated Quebec’s Francois Gagne 7-5 in the afternoon after struggling uphill to outlast Shawn Adams of Nova Scotia 9-7 in a morning confrontation.
In other afternoon action, Saskatchewan hammer-thrower Pat Simmons scored an open hit for a deuce with last rock to defeat B.C. 6-4 and Adams rebounded
from his tough morning loss to double up on Northern Ontario’s Brad Jacobs 10-5.
The Bluenosers closed the day with four losses, alongside Jacobs of The Soo.
“We’re still in ‘er but we pretty well have to run the table,” said Adams.
He controlled his morning squabble with Alberta until the latter hit for a go-ahead three in the ninth end.
“It’s hard to keep that team from scoring multiple points,” said Adams. “I missed a couple of doubles and that’s all it takes. I thought we managed them half-decent until the ninth end. What do we do now? Just go forward.”
Laycock’s Regina entry outlasted the struggling B.C. team in a see-saw affair.
“It was a funny game,” said Simmons. “Every end, early, the team with hammer was in great shape and by the time it got down to last rocks the throwers were in huge trouble. It was basically a matter of drawing against enemy rocks all afternoon.
“We were a little POed from yesterday, all the wrong doings (two losses), but our confidence wasn’t really bruised. That wasn’t our sharpest game but we battled and it was huge result for us.”
Martin, for the second match in a row, found himself down three early in the morning, but he made a great lock-in forcing the Nova Scotia skipper to throw through in the third end for one, making it a 4-2 contest with Alberta holding hammer in five.
“That was big, because he couldn’t make the deuce. If I don’t make that, he gets two maybe three and the game’s over,” said Martin.
After that, the Wild Rosers seemed to find their comfort zone and built momentum culminating with a great double and stick by Martin for three in the ninth and a 9-7 lead coming home.
Stoughton bounced back from a slow start, down 3-1, to wallop the Territories 10-4.
Jacobs (3-4) jumped back into fray, beating Quebec’s 8-5. The Jacobs crew was forced to curl well in the latter stages to hold on for the win.
Quebec finished the day at 2-5.
Jacobs agrees his team has curled better than their record shows.
“We still need to curl better though, we haven’t quite curled to our potential yet,” said Jacobs.
“We might be the best team with the worst record, I can kind of see that to be honest with you.”
The feel-good story of the day was MacKenzie, who posted the Island’s first win at this event, beating Maritime rival Grattan 8-5.
“It’s nice to get a win, a little late coming, but we’re happy,” said Mackenzie.
Most happy of all, maybe, was Howard’s team which appears to be reveling in front of a vociferous home crowd.
“Every player out here would love to play in his home province,” said Howard. “You get the cheers. You’re going to support your hometown team and that’s what they’re doing here. I love it. I hope they keep it up.”