Martin versus Howard for all the marbles

Glenn Howard and his team from Coldwater, Ontario, earned a sudden-death crack at Canada’s Olympic representation in men’s curling Saturday. Howard will play Edmonton’s Kevin Martin at 1 p.m. MST/3 p.m. EST Sunday, live on TSN, with the winner dawning Canada’s Olympic garb. The springboard to the final was an 11-6 semi-final conquest of Winnipeg’s Jeff Stoughton on Saturday afternoon at Rexall Place. Howard, with third Richard Hart, second Brent Laing and lead Craig Savill, dominated the semi from the get-go, opening with a deuce and never ceasing to apply pressure to Stoughton’s team of Kevin Park, Rob Fowler and Steve Gould. “We got that break in the third end,” assessed Howard, “were in total control, Jeff gets two deuces late and suddenly I have to make my last shot to win it. That’s the game. That’s the free guard zone. In curling now, you really have to earn it.” Stoughton said he was chasing from the get-go. “He made that nice angle-raise double tick-wick whatchamacallit in the third end and it was a killer,” he said. “I don’t know how many rocks he hit, bumped us off the button and sits two. After that, they played so well.” Stoughton lost the final of the 2005 Trials to Brad Gushue of St. John’s, who went on to win a gold medal for Canada at the Torino Olympics.  “This is disappointing but it doesn’t hurt so much,” Stoughton said. “Losing the final when you’re expected to win is the real  kick in the guts.” This is skip Howard’s sixth personal attempt to qualify for the Olympics. He has played every previous Trials, starting with the first event at Calgary in 1987 as third for brother Russ. Vice-skip Hart played third for Mike Harris, Canada’s rep at the Nagano Games in 1998, winning a silver medal. Martin, of course, skipped Canadian stand-bearers at the 1992 demo Olympics and the 2002 Games at Salt Lake City, also winning a silver medal. Hart executed a perfect hit-and-roll behind a corner guard in the first end to set up Howard’s opening deuce. Then Stoughton was forced to settle for one in reply, drawing the four-foot with Howard counting two more. In the third, Howard’s highlight-reel first rock, a high-heat angle-raise, double-raise to re-arrange a combination of stones in the four-foot was pivotal. Howard was left with two, one peeking into the open, and when Stoughton narrowly missed slashing both enemy stones out of contention, Howard had a routine draw for another deuce. “We knew it was our rock going in if we got the angle,” recalled Howard. “We knew if we nutted it good things would happen. We weren’t quite sure exactly what, but it turned out the way we wanted it. “Kevin (Martin) makes a lot of those, right?” he added. Stoughton again could get nothing going in the fourth and drew the four-foot looking at four enemy bricks. Howard blanked the fifth after a Stoughton bid for a deuce evaporated. The trend continued in the sixth. Stoughton executed a bury in the back corner of the four-foot with Howard sitting three. But Howard was able to angle it back far enough with a last quiet tap to score two more and assume a 6-2 edge. Stoughton finally finagled a pair in the seventh and left Howard a routine split-double in the eighth on which he connected for a single point. Howard then missed a double in the ninth and Stoughton deployed the hammer for another deuce to pull within one point. Howard’s 10th-end four-spot, resulting from his last shot, constituted meaningless tinsel. “The bottom line is, you want to get to Sunday, and that’s what we did,” said Howard.  Now I’m really glad that we played the semi. It’s a great feeling, the fact we have a chance. Obviously we want to go out and play well (in the final). If we don’t play well it’ll be really disappointing. If we play really well and lose the game, it’ll be a little easier to accept. If we play well and win the game, that’s what we came for.  It’s four years of preparation, and this is right where we want to be, so it can’t get any better than this.” Will Howard be classed as the underdog? “We’re starting to feel that way,” said Hart. “Curlers are good at keeping score, and they’ve beaten us a bunch of times in a row at major events. We’ve beaten them on the circuit; we’re kind of even if not a little ahead of them there. But at these major events, they’ve really had our number. We’re going to find out tomorrow. I’m nervous already. But we might have a slight advantage, having played today.” Howard added, “We’re not bitter rivals. There’s a lot of respect with these teams. But it’s always a little more tense. I think we have the top two teams in the country the past couple of years so this probably is a deserving matchup. “It will be a little different that today. We were kind of joking around out there with Jeff and the boys. I think they are the classiest team out there. But, yeah, with Kevin it’s a little more serious.”