The skin on the apple is tightening for the eight followers at the Tim Hortons Brier.
With two teams at 7-1 and three games remaining, and two at 7-2 with only two games remaining, everybody else in the field is on the verge of extinction.Ontario’s Glenn Howard and Newfoundland’s Brad Gushue tightened the noose on Wednesday afternoon, moving their records to 7-2.
Bouncing back from an untimely morning loss to Brad Jacobs of Northern Ontario, Howard crushed Eddie MacKenzie’s Prince Edward Islanders 11-1 in an abbreviated five-end rout that sparked some controversy on account of a Brier rule that calls for all teams to complete at least seven ends in each game.
Gushue, meanwhile, out-fought New Brunswick’s James Grattan 6-5.
Manitoba’s Jeff Stoughton stayed even with idle front-running Kevin Martin of Alberta at 7-1, executing a litany of clutch shots in a 7-6 extra-end squeezer over Saskatchewan’s Steve Laycock.
Stoughton and Martin collide today at 7:30 (ET) in a battle for top spot. One of them will drop down beside Ontario and the Newfs with two losses.
Nobody else is within two games of 7-and-2 and Jacobs will need a win over the Islanders later today to stay within sight of the leaders.
“These guys just weren’t missing,” said Stoughton of his Green-Machine opposition (4-5) which has enjoyed an inconsistent Brier, to say the least.
“We had to shoot the lights out. We had to make some great shots just to get into the extra end. The last five we played really solid. We needed it.”
The Manitobans trailed 5-4 in the eighth but turned it around with a critical theft of a pair to take control.
“We had to make every shot perfectly, top button, around the corners, everything,” said Stoughton.
Charlottetown’s MacKenzie explained his decision to depart his game at the halfway point, rule or no rule.
“I didn’t want to be out there,” he said. “We talked about it before we left the ice. Richard Hart (Ontario third) said they’d split the fine with us if they (officialdom) put up a stink on it.
“When you’re down 11-1 against one of the top teams in the world and you’re not going to get back in the game it’s kind of a pointless activity to be out there. I guess in other sports you have to keep playing but when it’s only one of four games on the ice?”
Reports were that Brier rules call for fines of anything from $200 to $500 per player for rule infractions on game completion.
“We got Eddie into trouble in the first end, he missed a draw and then he missed a draw in the next end, so we were up 6-0 and that was sort of it,” said Howard.
“I went to the bathroom, came back and they’d shaken hands. Eddie didn’t want any part of being out there and I don’t blame him.
“Maybe it’s a problem. I don’t know. We’ll have to find out whether or not there are going to make a fuss about it. As a player, it’s better to shake and get off there. But I can understand some issues with fans. They want to watch curling, seven, eight, nine ends and I know TV’s an issue but that wasn’t true in our game. I get that.
“I think a fine is offside. When it’s not a televised game. It’s 11-1. He’s not going to come back. I totally get it. He was very frustrated. He wants to get off the ice. It’s only two more ends. I don’t think it hurt anybody.”
There is, however, the creeping threat of gambling involving every sport these days? And what actually constitutes a curling game?
“I guess if there’s betting involved there’s a problem down the line,” admitted Howard. “Maybe we should play the whole game. What’s the difference? Why quit after seven or eight? But if we’re allowed to quit at seven? Betting shouldn’t have anything to do with it.”
Gushue, who battled to retain control against New Brunswick from the start, said he liked the position his team had taken with two games remaining — against Manitoba and Quebec on Thursday.
“It can get better,” he said. “Things are coming around. I’m pretty optimistic about tomorrow and the weekend.
“We seem to play better in the morning and we’re a little sluggish when we get the morning off,” he said. “I’m glad we’re getting Manitoba in the morning, for sure. I like getting the afternoon off, too.”
In one other afternoon tussle, Jamie Koe of the Territories engineered his third win of the week, scoring in the final end top nudge Jim Cotter’s British Columbians 6-5.
Saskatchewan’s Laycock assessed his team’s week in terms of “one or two mistakes every game”.
“We’ve made small mistakes and the other teams have really jumped on them,” he said. “Small mistakes we’re going to have to tidy up a little bit.”
Howard explained the necessity for coming back strong after a loss like his morning setback
“You have to go out and shake it off,” said Howard. “Sometimes we tend to get a little hungrier, a little more focused. That’s because the next game’s usually bigger because you’ve lost the last one. Had we won the last one it wouldn’t have changed our demeanour but you have to focus that much more.
“It’s a long week you’re tired, but you have to keep your focus. You’re not going to get any easy misses out of a Kevin or a Jeff or any of those guys. It’s what I tell my kids. You just have to focus for a couple of hours. And you have to stay focused in the moment.
And you have to focus even more as it gets down to the nitty-gritty. Everybody out here can make all the shots. It’s who can make them in the key situations. When guys are missing it’s because they’ve lost focus for a minute.
“Brad (Jacobs) this morning? He had that focus. It was a massive game for them. Probably kept them in the Brier.
“We don’t want to get any more losses, obviuously. We have to be careful. But I think we can control our own destiny if we win two tomorrow.”