Scotties 2017: Contenders, challengers and long shots

Chelsea Carey’s Alberta crew is aiming for a repeat performance at the 2017 Scotties. (Andrew Klaver/Curling Canada)

The 2017 Scotties Tournament of Hearts has arrived, with a cluster of contenders looking for the crown in St. Catharines, Ontario. Those contenders include a would-be repeat champion, a skip looking for her third national title, and three veteran skippers who would like their long sought-after first championship.

CONTENDERS

These are the four teams (in no particular order) I feel are most likely to be in the playoffs when the round-robin portion of the Scotties is complete.

The defending champions, Chelsea Carey’s Team Canada rink, have already proven their worth with last year’s run to a championship. It’s true that they are ranked merely 19th in the World Curling Tour’s (WCT) Order of Merit Standings (year-to-date) and have only one win, besting a small field at the Hokkaido Curling classic, in Japan. A less than stellar season includes quarter-final finishes at The Masters and National as well as out-of-the-playoffs finishes at the Canada Cup and the Tour Challenge. In this field, though, a playoff spot should be in the cards and this is a team that should get better as the week goes on.

Ontario, skipped by Rachel Homan, returns to nationals after being shocked at provincials in 2016. Homan has the top-ranked team at this event, sitting third in the WCT year-to-date standings. They have three wins to their credit this season as well as silver medal finishes at the Canada Cup and The Masters. In eight events, they’ve only missed the playoffs once, that being at last month’s Canadian Open. You don’t need me to sell you on this team, though, right? Homan is seeking her third win at The Scotties.

Northern Ontario skip Krista McCarville is looking for more at the 2017 Scotties. (Andrew Klaver/Curling Canada)

Northern Ontario’s Krista McCarville is back, looking to improve upon her team’s silver medal from a year ago. Perhaps you could be forgiven for under-rating them last year as McCarville was returning to action after a year away from competitive curling. They flew a little under the radar despite having a pretty impressive season leading up to The Scotties. They’re lightly played this season and have just the one win but this is a team that has the goods. Last year, they were a stealing machine on the way to the final and you can expect them to once again put all kinds of pressure on opponents when they do not have hammer.

Manitoba, skipped by Michelle Englot, is the tenth-ranked team in the WCT’s year-to-date standings. Englot, a seven-time Saskatchewan champion, took over a very good squad when Kristy McDonald decided to step back from the game for at least this season, leaving third Kate Cameron, second Leslie Wilson and lead Raunora Westcott looking for a skipper. Bringing in Englot has paid off and it showed early, as the foursome made the final at the Grand Slam’s Tour Challenge, last November, falling to Val Sweeting. They knocked off Jennifer Jones in the page playoff game at the Manitoba Championship, then defeated Darcy Robertson in the final, after Robertson upset Jones in the semi.

While the above are my four predicted playoff teams, there are a couple of rinks just below that could find their way in should one or more of the contenders falter.

CHALLENGERS

Alberta, skipped by Shannon Kleibrink, is the most dangerous team in this category and you could sure make a case that they ought to have been plopped down with the “contenders.” Kleibrink has been suffering from back troubles and those ailments saw the team call on Heather Nedohin to skip a couple of games at the Alberta Scotties. While Nedohin won those games as a sub, Kleibrink was back to win the page playoff as well as the final and was up to her old tricks in doing so, earning raves for her ability to make something out of nothing when things were looking dire. Nedohin – a Scotties champ in 2012 – will skip some games in St. Catharines and even if Kleibrink was unable to play at all for some reason, this team would chug along just fine. Their second, Sarah Wilkes, is a superstar in the making.

Shannon Kleibrink will try to win her first Scotties in, this, her fifth appearance. (Curling Canada)

British Columbia is skipped by 2009 Scotties silver medallist Marla Mallett, who is appearing in her fourth national championship. Her third, Shannon Aleksic, is appearing in her fifth. They won a tour event back in September, emerging in a field that included Carey, Kleibrink, Sweeting and Kerri Einarson.

LONG SHOTS

Prince Edward Island’s Robyn MacPhee and Quebec’s Eve Bélisle skip teams at the top of this grade. MacPhee is skipping in her first Scotties but has oodles of experience at other positions, with this being her eighth Scotties appearance, overall. Bélisle is skipping at her third Scotties while her third, Lauren Mann, skipped a Quebec team at the 2015 nationals.

Saskatchewan’s Penny Barker came through what most observers have called a down year in that province’s women’s curling scene. Nova Scotia (Mary Mattatall’s crew will be a sentimental favourite – they range in age from 56 – 61) and Newfoundland & Labrador are in this group, while Yukon, Northwest Territories, Nunavut and New Brunswick will tangle in the pre-qualifier stage, with one moving on to the main draw.

Prediction: Team Homan gets back to the top of the Canadian curling mountain, with a win over Team Carey in the final.

Grand Slam of Curling: Gushue thrives, Scheidegger arrives at the Canadian Open

Team Gushue salutes the crowd at the Meridian Canadian Open in North Battleford, SK on January 7, 2017. (Anil Mungal/Sportsnet)

The results of the 2017 Grand Slam of Curling’s Canadian Open gave us both an answer and a question.

The answer: Yes, Brad Gushue is just fine after missing half a season with an injury. The question: Is Casey Scheidegger ready to win an Alberta championship?

GUSHUE PERFECT IN WIN OVER EDIN

Brad Gushue’s 8-3 (seven ends) win over Niklas Edin came with the winning skip firing a perfect 100%, his second such personal score in three games (the other was a paltry (ahem) 92%.

The 36-year-old skip displayed a perfect touch on a tricky draw in the 6th end, scoring three and salting things away as he and his teammates forged a five rock lead.

“Just showing no signs of any kind of weakness,” said analyst Kevin Martin, describing Gushue’s game.

While Gushue was letter perfect in the game, counterpart Niklas Edin wasn’t quite that, although he did make a couple of beautiful last-stone shots in both the third and fifth ends to score singles and keep the proceedings from getting out of hand earlier. However, a miss on a double in the second end opened the door for a Gushue four, and Edin and his mates were chasing the rest of the way.

“I felt really good this week,” Gushue told CBC just after the win. “I didn’t think we’d be back to this point this quick but I knew we’d get back here. I thought it would take a little more time,” he said.

Gushue has never seemed more comfortable with a team than he does right now. He’s never seemed happier on the ice and it comes across in spades during games. Maybe that’s because he’s returned to elite curling with such ease after a frustrating hip and groin injury kept him off the ice for longer than he thought it would. Or maybe it’s because after years of rotating a series of teammates in and out of the line-up, he knows he’s truly hit upon his best chance ever at finally winning a Brier, getting a shot at a World Championship and getting back to an Olympic Games.

“I like our relationship right now,” he said of vice Mark Nichols, during a mid-game interview on CBC. With Nichols – who’d superbly filled in for Gushue as skip while his teammate re-habbed through the beginning of December – and front enders Brett Gallant and Geoff Walker, Gushue seems to have confidence overflowing, with calm communication and reciprocated respect in obvious evidence between he and his teammates.

It’s all boding well for a team that heads for provincials with a backyard national championship on the horizon. 2017 might be their time to climb all the way to the top of the world, and Gushue’s forced vacation might end up being a key component to that possibly happening.

For Gushue, that St. John’s Brier (barring what could only be termed a ridiculously monumental upset at provincials) might be his best shot yet at nabbing the tankard. His half-season rest might prove beneficial at that time.

“I’m gonna be a lot more fresh this spring than I have been the last couple of years,” he told CBC.

“And I’m hungry.”

And already shooting smoothly and surgically, just a couple of events into his season.

Casey Scheidegger throws a stone during the Meridian Canadian Open in North Battleford, SK on January 5, 2017. (Anil Mungal/Sportsnet)

SCHEIDEGGER’S BREAKTHROUGH SEASON NETS A FIRST SLAM TITLE

Casey Scheidegger’s 5-4 win over Silvana Tirinzoni in the women’s final was helped along by a sub-par performance by Tirinzoni, capped by a light attempt on a draw attempt in the eighth, giving Scheidegger the decisive steal point.

But that tells just part of the story. Scheidegger, herself, shook off whatever nerves may have been present for her and her team – they were playing in their first ever grand slam final – and drew perfectly buried behind a long guard, sitting just biting the four foot, shrinking the scoring zone for Tirinzoni’s final shot.

“I’m in a little bit of shock but we’re thrilled,” she told Sportsnet afterward. “We’ve worked so hard this season. It’s finally like a breakthrough for us.”

Scheidegger’s win could be termed a bit of a surprise, sure. But not a shocker, if you look at the season they’d been having leading up to the competition. They’d previously won three events on tour, defeating both Jennifer Jones and Eve Muirhead in the finals of early season spiels.

In beating Kerri Einarson, Jones and Val Sweeting on the way to the Canadian Open final, Scheidegger and teammates Cary-Anne McTaggart, Jessie Scheidegger and Stephanie Enright showed that they should absolutely be considered legitimate threats at the upcoming Alberta Scotties, in St. Albert. Scheidegger, the 28-year-old skip (29 at the end of January) who won a provincial junior championship in 2009, has made six straight appearances at the Alberta Scotties, making it to the playoffs just once.

However, considering the year they’ve had so far, it seems it’d be unwise to bet against them making a TV appearance at the provincial championship in 2017 (Joan McCusker and I will have the call of both the semi-final and the final, on Sportsnet, on January 29th).

Team Scheidegger’s rise – the skip credits working with national team coach Paul Webster as a key reason for it –  has them in great shape as the provincials come up around the bend. “We always felt like we can compete with these teams and so we’re just kind of now proving it,” said Scheidegger told Sportsnet.

Sweeting and the other contenders in St. Albert now have that to think about.

 

Grand Slam of Curling: Einarson, Jacobs bust through at The National

Kerri Einarson celebrates her victory in the final of the Boost National in Sault Ste. Marie, ON on December 11, 2016. (Anil Mungal/Sportsnet)

The Grand Slam of Curling’s seasonal theme continues as we head into the holidays.

With skips Kerri Einarson and Brad Jacobs leading their teams to victory at The National, in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, “Busting Through” could be pegged as the tour’s unofficial slogan.

For Team Jacobs, the busting through refers to ending a wee Grand Slam drought and perhaps launching a spirited bid for dominance in the second half of the season, shaking off the doldrums that have stuck to them like the velcro on their gloves. For Einarson, it refers to her team’s first ever Grand Slam win, which places them in the same company as Team Niklas Edin and Team Allison Flaxey, victors at earlier slam events in 2016-17.

Jacobs and his mates – Ryan Fry, E.J. and Ryan Harnden – got the hometown win they said they desperately wanted, taking down perhaps the hottest team on the circuit in the outfit skipped by Reid Carruthers, 4-2. It was Jacobs’ second Grand Slam win, coming a year and a half after his first, the 2015 Players’ Championship. There were some close calls and flat out disappointments in between as well as watching another Brad – Gushue – claim a clutch of titles in the interim.

“I’m really proud of the guys,” Jacobs told CBC after the win. “I don’t know how we did it but we did it and hopefully this gives us a nice little boost and helps with the confidence and we can keep rolling and have a good Christmas break.”

Disappointed after last week’s early departure from the Canada Cup – a competition they were hoping to peak for – Jacobs and his teammates can now feel the rejuvenation of winning a slam in their hometown as well as banking 81.456 points in the race for an Olympic Trials berth.

For Einarson – a Tier Two winner last season – there were “Goosebumps everywhere” after her team’s 5-3 win over Silvana Tirinzoni in the women’s final. When asked by Sportsnet commentator Mike Harris how the words “Grand Slam Champion” sounded, she replied: “That sounds amazing. I hope there’s more to come.”

There very likely will be more for the 29-year-old skip. However, those chickens can sometimes be counted a little more slowly than one might like; Einarson and her teammates need only ask the Jacobs’ crew, who, as decorated as they are, left The Soo with only their second ever Grand Slam win. Nevertheless, her team, rounded out by third Selena Kaatz, second Liz Fyfe and lead Kristin MacCuish, can feel the slingshot of momentum just like Team Jacobs, as they have their own Olympic Trials berth to think about and the 84.142 points they picked up will push them from out of the picture to smack dab in the middle of it. Indeed, this win at The National, along with last week’s semi-final finish at The Canada Cup, sends a message that Einarson’s rink is ascending and that the defending Manitoba Champions should be considered no worse than even money to repeat their provincial title, even with Team Jennifer Jones back in the picture this season.

Team Jacobs celebrates after winning the 2016 National in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario. (L toR): Ryan Harnden, E.J. Harnden, Brad Jacobs and Ryan Fry. (Anil Mungal/Sportsnet)

It wasn’t exactly a sizzling day of shotmaking at The National, although there were some instances of it. However, both the men’s and women’s championships were marked by some missed opportunities; the men’s final featured an eighth end that saw a draw slip through the house followed by two that were short of the rings altogether as they over-curled a ton. The women’s final featured three hogged rocks in one end.

There were some wild rides on championship Sunday. Carruthers’ left arm shuddered a bit on one delivery during the men’s final, as his stabilizer picked up some debris underneath, and that ‘s not something you see every day. Tirinzoni’s shot in the eighth end was notable for the lengthy gash left in the ice and after she released the stone, she looked back over her shoulder as if to see if the moose she’d run over was okay. The Sportsnet replay of the shot made the stone look a little like the bow of a boat pushing water to either side, as little ice chips flew up beside it.

The week did have those kinds of moments. You can ask Steve Laycock. His team gets distinguished as the first to lose a Slam game to the Tanner Horgan rink, during the round-robin, when his final shot – a rather routine take out on an open stone – bit into something on the Essar Centre ice surface.

That young Horgan team is one to watch in the future and the sponsor’s invitation they received to play against some of the best squads in the world will likely serve them well as they mature. The two thousand bucks they got when Laycock’s stone blew a tire doesn’t hurt either.

The Horgans will be back, down the road, but for the present it was another Northern Ontario men’s team that took the spotlight on Sunday – reclaimed it, really – along with an emerging women’s force from Manitoba.

 

 

 

Curling: Canada Cup results set up an intriguing points chase for the rest of the season

(L to R) Jennifer Jones, Kaitlyn Lawes, Jill Officer and Dawn McEwen hoist the Canada Cup. (Michael Burns/Curling Canada)

(L to R) Jennifer Jones, Kaitlyn Lawes, Jill Officer and Dawn McEwen hoist the Canada Cup. (Michael Burns/Curling Canada)

Well, one more curling team gets to exhale and relax just a little bit. The rest now breathe in and brace themselves for an Olympic dreams scrap, one that should make for a very interesting next few months.

Reid Carruthers, welcome to the Olympic Trials. Everyone else not on teams skipped by him, Kevin Koe, Rachel Homan and Jennifer Jones, get scrambling.

Carruthers made it a clean sweep for Manitoba rinks, taking a see-saw, 8-6 victory over Team Gushue – skipped by Mark Nichols – and winning the men’s title at the 2016 Canada Cup. Cracking a three-ender in the ninth to break open a tight one, Team Carruthers also secured an Olympic Trials berth with the victory.

The results of The Canada Cup have provided us with what should be the ingredients for a hell of a race over the course of the winter and spring, with the women’s side now getting what the men’s side already had – an extra berth based on the 2016-17 end-of-season standings.

Not that the final result brought that about. Even before Team Jennifer Jones and Team Rachel Homan stepped on the ice for their final in Brandon, Manitoba, it had already been confirmed that another berth in the qualifier for the 2018 games would be up for grabs, even though the juiciest morsel in winning the tournament was a guaranteed spot in that competition. Both Jones and Homan had already locked down spots in Kanata, Ontario, where Canada’s men’s and women’s Olympic curling teams will be decided one year from now.

A Homan/Jones final meant the trials berth on offer would scatter to the wind, set to land at the end of the year, based on tour points. That’s a shame for the other rinks in Brandon who’d hoped to join them on the invitee’s list, but a boon for those who were watching from elsewhere and who now have a bonus spot to try and reel in.

A steal of four, in the third end, propelled Jones and her team to the crown (Jones’ third) in a 9-5 win and the $14,000.00 grand prize (as well as two grand for each round-robin win) that came along with it. Cash is nice, of course, and so are titles, but both of those teams already had the luxury of playing a relaxed schedule in 2016-17. The rest of the women’s field was hoping to win it all and celebrate an early Christmas – not just because of the money – safe from the uncertainty of an intense points pursuit.

“This is one of the toughest events to win so we’re pretty pleased,” Jones told TSN afterward. “We’re workin’ hard to get back into the form we were in 2014.”

For Val Sweeting, Chelsea Carey, Kerri Einarson, Tracy Fleury and Kelsey Rocque, it means heading back into the cauldron, trying to earn their way in the hard way, either by way of a national Scotties championship (as long as they then go on to a podium finish at worlds) or a high enough finish in the Canadian Team Ranking System (CTRS) standings. For skips like Allison Flaxey, Michelle Englot and Casey Scheidegger – who didn’t get a crack at the Canada Cup – it’s a bit of a “Yahtzee!” situation as at least three trials invitations will be offered at the end of this season, based on points.

You can make that four if either Homan or Jones wins The Scotties.

Flaxey’s in the catbird seat – maybe she and her teammates were, anyway – as they held a healthy lead over other would be Olympians heading into the weekend, a hundred points ahead of Englot. Sweeting and Rocque pick up more points based on their Canada Cup appearances, making their tussle with Englot a tight one right now. Fleury’s not far behind and those that had faint hope of picking off a points-based berth, have new life because of the Homan/Jones Canada Cup final.

Skip Reid Carruthers watches as sweepers Derek Samagalski (L) and Colin Hodgson guide a rock during the men's final at the 2016 Canada Cup. (Michael Burns/Curling Canada)

Skip Reid Carruthers watches as sweepers Derek Samagalski (L) and Colin Hodgson guide a rock during the men’s final at the 2016 Canada Cup. (Michael Burns/Curling Canada)

We shouldn’t forget that another Olympic qualifier’s position will be earned by a team that finishes with the most points over two seasons. Carey and Sweeting are in the strongest positions in that regard on the women’s side, Team Gushue (whose skip, Brad Gushue should be back from injury by early in the new year) and Mike McEwen on the men’s.

UPDATE: On Monday afternoon, Sportsnet reported that Gushue was planning on returning at this week’s Grand Slam of curling event, in Sault Ste. Marie.

When Team Kevin Koe won the 2015 Canada Cup and then went on to win The Brier and The Worlds last season, it effectively meant they’d earned two berths to the Olympic Trials and that’s why it had already been decided that an extra CTRS standings ticket would be available for the men this season. When Koe’s team finished out of the playoffs in Brandon, it meant that someone was going to nail down a trials berth along with the Canada Cup championship and that someone turned out to be Carruthers and his teammates; Braeden Moskowy, Derek Samagalski and Colin Hodgson.

As far as single-season standings go, McEwen is in a strong position, as are John Epping, Steve Laycock, Gushue and Brad Jacobs, whose ouster from the Canada Cup must have been a stinger, as he and his teammates were targeting the tournament as a place on the schedule where they wanted to be in peak form.

“This is an eye opener for us,” Jacobs said after his team’s tiebreaker loss on the weekend. “We’ve gotta get a lot better if we expect to be in the Olympic Trials. It’s back to the drawing board, the four of us, with our coach and our sports psych. I’m confident that we can get better.”

Lots of curling to come, of course, with a number of teams having more than one viable way into the field at season’s end. Five direct entries to the Olympic Trials remain on both the men’s and women’s sides, with six or seven teams figuring they ought to be the ones to go. However, somebody’s going to be left on the outside, looking to fight their way in by plucking a spot through the pre-trials, next November in Summerside, PEI.

The Canada Cup’s results have certainly added intrigue to the proceedings and given new hope to a number of teams.

It’s a pressure cooker for ambitious rinks, for sure.

But, it’s also a delicious circumstance for curling fans as this thing is really just starting to lightly boil, with the next opportunity to get a leg up coming this week at the Grand Slam of Curling’s “The National,” in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario.