For the first time since the last time Glenn Howard of Ontario won the Tim Hortons Brier (2007), the playoff field emerged cut and dried from the round-robin preliminary.
When Brad Gushue’s boys from The Rock made short work of fading Quebec rookie Serge Reid 8-2 during Thursday night’s final draw at the Metro Centre, the Fab Four were in concrete and playoff positions locked up.
Heading into the Page-system showdown, undefeated Howard will tangle with unsung Brad Jacobs of Sault Ste. Marie Friday at 7:30 p.m. with the winner advancing to the championship final on Sunday at 8 p.m. and the loser dropping into Saturday’s semi-final at 7:30 p.m.
Then on Saturday at 12 noon, Gushue will collide with Kevin Koe of Edmonton in a sudden-death playoff of 8-and-3 teams with the winner moving to the eventide semi.
When Coldwater’s Howard capped an 11-win string with a tight 7-6 decision over Koe on the closing shift, it dropped the Edmonton team to third place and left the surging but idle Northern Ontario crew (9-and-2) with the extra playoff life alongside Howard and his unit of Richard Hart, Brent Laing and Craig Savill.
Howard was required to wield the hammer in the final end. Koe attempted a tight tap-and-roll behind partial cover in the four-foot with his last rock but the stone hit thin and rolled out of contention.
“We made it tough on ourselves,” said Koe. “I may have thrown the last one a bit soft and it over-curled. A nose hit was useless and I was going to make sure I got some kind of roll. It’s too bad, I would have liked to leave him having to make something to win. He’d probably make it, he made just about everything out there, but it would have been a better way to lose.”
No all-Ontario final match ever has been staged at the Brier. In fact, no all-Ontario Page One-Two game has transpired in the past, although the Ontario teams finished one-two in the 1990 round robin and finished tied with B.C. and Manitoba for top spot in 1993.
By coincidence, the second-place finisher in 1990 was skipped by Jacobs’s uncle, Al Harnden, who lost the semi-final.
Gushue’s victory earned his inconsistent Newfoundlanders the last playoff berth and eliminated Jeff Stoughton of Winnipeg, who missed the playoff round for the third time in eight Brier appearances. So what was the Ontario key to an undefeated rampage through the week’s round robin?
“I think reading the ice and the reading the weight well has been an advantage for us this week,” Howard was saying.
“It’s never been quite the same, game in and game out, and we’ve been able to adjust. It’s like going to a different golf course every day, putting on different greens. Conditions are great but you just have to read it that day. I think we did a great job of that.
“We all did it as a team, too. It’s not just me. The guys picked up on all the nuances of the ice and the speed and you need that.”
Howard said he’s seen more missed draw shots this week than in previous Briers.
“It’s sort of shocking,” he said. “Usually, at this level, you don’t see so much of that. I think I’ve seen more draws missed this year than the last three or four. I think it’s a matter of the ice changing here and there. Every Brier is like this and the more experience you get on this type of ice the better off you are. I mean, you put another 1,000 people in the arena and it changes things. You never know. You have to learn to recognize it.”
The Northern Ontario team, riding an eight-game winning streak, bombarded Reid’s Quebeckers 9-3 in the afternoon and stunning a sloppy Gushue 8-4 in the morning.
Said Gushue in the wake of his evening rout: “It’s nice to be in the playoffs, not the position we hoped for, but now we have an opportunity over the next three days to see if we can pull it off. We’re going to have to win three tough games against three tough opponents. But we’ve done that to win events before.”
In fact, no team ever has won the Brier after qualifying for the Page Three-Four playoff.
“Eventually someone’s got to do it,” he said. “Maybe it will be us this time. It’s overdue.”
At the finish behind the leaders, Manitoba was 7-and-4, Quebec was 5-and-6 after losing its last four games, Saskatchewan and British Columbia were 4-and-7, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and P.E.I. were 3-and-8 and the Territories team won once in 11 matches.