The suspense began seeping out of the final-draw scenario like a leaky balloon on Thursday night in the Tim Hortons Brier at the John Labatt Centre.
When Newfoundlander Brad Gushue hammered four on the board in the fourth end of his match against Quebec’s Francois Gagne and Alberta’s Kevin Martin nailed Ontario’s Glenn Howard for a couple of early deuces and probably should have had a four-spot for openers, the weekend’s playoff alignment appeared to be settling in stone.
Indeed, Gushue and his team of Mark Nichols, Ryan Fry and Jamie Danbrook, will forge a 2005 Olympic trials rematch with Manitoba’s Jeff Stoughton in tonight’s Page One-Two playoff match (7:30 ET) with the winner advancing directly to Sunday’s national championship final.
The contest will be a rematch of the 2005 Canadian Olympic curling trials final combatants as well as Thursday’s Draw-15 morning clash won 8-5 by the Newfoundland/Labrador bunch.
Martin and his Olympic gold-medallists of 2010 possessed only a slim chance of making it to the Page One-Two. Alberta needed a win over Howard and a loss from Gushue.
But Alberta’s last-draw 6-5 win over the Ontario team, which never seemed to be in doubt in spite of being taken to Martin’s open last-rock takeout shot in the 10th end, dragged Howard and Co., out of Page-One-Two contention as well, and into Saturday’s sudden-death Page Three-Four rematch at 2:30 p.m. ET.
Martin and Howard collided in the 2009 Olympic trials final as well as the Brier final in 2008. In fact, Martin owns a seven-for-eight win record against his Ontario foe.
Gushue’s Newfoundland/Labrador team rallied to make its move toward the top of the Brier standings in the morning against Stoughton and his team of Jonathan Mead, Reid Carruthers and Steve Gould, stealing an 8-5 duke.
The Rocksters took advantage of a monstrous miscue from Stoughton in the eighth end and turned a two-point deficit into a one-point advantage.
“It was a tight one, looking dicey for most of the game,” said Gushue who proceed to pay tribute to his sweepers Nichols and Danbrook who managed to turn three of Gushue’s shots from near-misses to just-made-its.
“Those three shots were the only rocks I didn’t really throw real good and they made them all. Those two guys swept their hearts out. I’ve never seen two guys so out of breath after those shots. They did a great job for me today.”
The brushmen dragged Gushue’s last of the eighth into the rings for the count of three, then succeeded in ensuring two perfect skip’s shots in the 10th end with Manitoba angling for at least an extra end.
Gushue’s first barely scraped past a guard for a hit and roll that left his team sitting two. Then his last guard was perfectly placed by a strong sweep.
“That puts our fate in our own hands,” said Gushue, who went to defeat Quebec’s Gagne 9-7 in his late game.
Manitoba, meanwhile, rebounded to stop Quebec 8-4 in the afternoon and await its fate decided during the evening matches.
“The One-Two is a huge playoff advantage,” said Gushue. “We had a good run and got in the One-Two in 2007 (then lost the final to Glenn Howard). But the last three years we’ve been in the Three-Four and there’s no way back from a loss there.”
Manitoba hit for three in the third end and controlled the issue through to the eighth when Stoughton’s last attempted double-kill double-jammed on backing and left his foe the free draw for the go-ahead trio.
“That was a (bleepin’) bonehead shot,” admitted Stoughton. “I mean, I wish everyone had been a little more adamant that we could double-jam. I never thought we could. If someone had said we could I never would have thrown that shot. It was the dumbest shot in the, er, a junior-B group piece of crap. It was a stupid shot and gave them an easy three. I guess I threw it too good because it hit the perfect spot . . . for them.”
The alternative, he said, was to hit and roll in front, surrender two and be tied playing the ninth with the hammer.
Manitoba kept the ninth end open but Stoughton rubbed with his last rock bidding for the deadlock in the final exchange, leaving the theft of a pair.
“I may have got it going,” said Stoughton. “You do that on this swingy ice today and it’s gone. We knew halfway down I’d already missed it, so it was disappointing.”
Gushue survived one scare in the evening against the Quebeckers when he flashed a takeout in the eighth and was forced to come back a draw the button cold for a single point to maintain three-point control.
Alberta controlled the Thursday night issue from the get-go
“I didn’t like to be tied up until we had the hammer,” said Martin. “That’s the way our games always are. We just kept control. Three-up early. Two-up after eight. Tied up after nine. We have the hammer coming home. That’s all you can hope for against a guy like Glenn. That’s a pretty good result.”
Martin admitted his team probably had some momentum heading into Saturday’s playoff.
“It certainly can’t hurt. It feels good now. Going in, I had to get it through my head to make a few shots.”
He described the day off today as “really good”.
“I’m a little tired. Brier’s are tough weeks.”
Martin scoffed at any suggestion of long-term domination over the Howard team being a future factor.
“Winning runs don’t mean anything,” he said. “We had a real run going against Jeff (Stoughton), too. And he made everything. And when you make everything you win. So it means nothing.”
Howard reflected on the first three ends . . .
“You give him a big lead like that it’s hard to come back. The first three were terrible. We were awful and I don’t know what the reason was. We just missed shots. We weren’t sharp. We didn’t pick up on the ice conditions. We couldn’t put three or four shots in a row together. The first end, we were really lucky to give him two. It could have been three or four.
“Then we played great for the last seven but it didn’t matter. If my last shot curls a half-inch less he’s got a real tough shot to win the game. That’s the way it rolls. We lost another one. We just find it so tough to get an edge on him.”
Had Howard won this argument, Ontario would have been ranked No. 1 in the Page One-Two. Instead, they’re No. 4 in the Page Three-Four.
“Now we have to go the hard route,” he said. “It doesn’t matter who you play now. You have to play three games in a row. I’m sure it will be another epic battle on Saturday.
“It’s frustrating. We definitely didn’t bring our A-game. I don’t like getting beat seven in a row by anybody . . . let alone Kevin Martin.”
For a while, it looked like Territories’ skipper Jamie Koe was going to rain on Martin’s parade in the afternoon.
Koe led Alberta by one heading into the 10th end without hammer, and a series of great shots by his team, particularly third Tom Naugler, left Martin in a tough spot, having to make a four-banger raise to stick for two and win the game.
As usual, when Martin is facing some sort of circus shot to win, he made it.
When asked if it was the best shot he’d made all week, Martin replied with a laugh: “It was certainly the only shot I made all day.”
Alberta got off to a 3-0 lead in two ends but Koe battled back and stole a go-ahead point in the ninth.
The win eliminated Brad Jacobs and his Northern Ontario Soo crew.
“You look back at a few moments,” said Jacobs, who reached the Page One-Two playoff a year ago. “A few shots over the week, sure, but we played well, and I think we learned some valuable lessons and we look forward to being back.”
Stoughton had a scare of his own in the afternoon.
Heading into the eighth end, his Manitoba crew found itself tied at four, but the Winnipeg crew erupted for a deuce, stole two more and coasted to an 8-4 win.
Stoughton stayed out to watch Martin’s circus heroics and says it is shots like that that makes him a great curler.
“Those are the kind of shots Kevin lives for, it was a great shot for sure,” Stoughton opined.
Earlier, there was a suggestion animosity might remain from the hotly-contested Olympic trials final 15 months ago involved Howard and Martin.
“We’re all competitors but we’re all still good friends,” said Howard.
“There’s nothing untoward between the two teams. If we see any infraction we’re going to call them out and that’s what happened in the trials. Since then we’ve had no problems at all. Neither team has had any harsh words toward the other. Off the ice we’re good friends. There’s eight guys out there who want to win and I don’t blame them for going hard. . . just as we are going hard.”
In other last-draw matches, Nova Scotia’s Shawn Adams of Halifax brought his record to 5-6 with a 6-5 win over British Columbia’s Jim Cotter of Vernon while Jacobs’s Moosies defeated Saskatchewan’s fast-fading Steve Laycock 6-3.
Jacobs finished 7-4 while Saskatchewan logged a 4-7 record. B.C. also finished 4-7.
In afternoon play, Jacobs thumped New Brunswick’s James Grattan 6-1 and Adams clobbered P.E.I.’s Eddie MacKenzie 12-3.
Ontario waxed Koe (3-8) of the Territories 9-2 in the morning while B.C. thrashed the 1-and-10 Islanders 7-1 and Grattan (4-7) dumped Saskatchewan 6-4.