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Wednesday, 19 November 2014

Welcome to the Soo Curling Fans
Home of Olympic Champs & the 2014 National Grand Slam

#TwineTime is back!  I know you are just as excited as I am.  After taking a one-week hiatus to enjoy the luxury of Iceland (I blogged a bit of the experience HERE), time to get back to it and what a perfect week to do so.  The men of the world curling tour hit the ice in the Soo this weekend for the second leg of the grand slam, The National!  This is an event dominated by 2 provinces in the past: Alberta and Ontario.  Even more specific, Kevin Martin (4 wins) and Glenn Howard (4 wins).  Teams from Quebec (Martin Ferland, 2003), The Rock (Brad Gushue, 2010) and Manitoba (Jeff Stoughton, 2013) have found success in the purple rings as well.  Howard is back, with a slightly different team of course, to try and repeat.  Gushue and Stoughton also return, also with different teams.  For the first time in a grand slam we welcome the Islanders from P.E.I. (Team Adam Casey). 

18 teams will be competing this year, the most of the grand slam events this season.  One point of interest this year is the lack of European teams competing.  The European Championships will begin this upcoming weekend as well (my preview of this will be posted soon), causing many of the top teams from across the pond (Peter de Cruz's Switzerland team will be in the Soo) to miss this grand slam event.  The schedule could be a blessing for another Canadian or the two American teams however who probably would not have been invited to attend if not for the crossover of two big events. 

Note the format for this event.  The 18 teams are divided into 3 pools of 6, with each team playing the other teams within their pool.  Only 8 teams will qualify for the playoff round though so competition is going to get tight quick.  That is 5 games played per team over only 9 draws.  2 losses could land you in a tiebreaker and even eliminated so every game is going to be high drama, high pressure and high expectations for each team.  No team can afford a slow start to this event.  So let's go right for the double takeout and here is my preview:

POOL A

Team Matthew Blandford (34 Order of Merit/34 YTD Ranking) "The Unknown" - Many people watching the action this weekend may not know of this team.  They are in for a treat though.  I was lucky enough to watch this team at the Boston Pizza Cup earlier this year (AB Provincial Championship) and was very impressed by them.  A 3rd place finish there only put them on the track to success this season.  They have qualified in 4 of their 5 events this season.  Worth noting vice Darren Moulding and Second Brent Hamilton won the 2014 Canadian Mixed Curling Championship as well.  This team has experience, has the results but do have the stomach to handle the big pressure?
Projection: 1 - 4

Team Adam Casey (18/11) "The Islanders" - Welcome to the Grand Slam P.E.I.  Finally we see an island team play at the grand slam.  And what a team to represent our smallest province.  I commented in previous blogs that this team seems to step up every week, having qualified in 5 of their 7 events this season (Stay away from Stu Sells events boys!!).  In fact, they enter this weekend after back-to-back runner-up finishes in their recent events, totaling 3 runner-up finishes this season.  Small province yes, big-time curling YES, YES, YES!! 
Projection: 2 - 3

Team John Epping (7/2) "The Surprise" - I do not think entering this season many expected Team Epping to be sitting at Number 2 on the Year to Date ranking list.  This is a new team, well old team with a new skip but still.  They have looked great.  This will be their 10th event of the season so these boys have A LOT of ice time under their belts.  They also enter on a winning streak, having just won the Gord Carroll Curling Classic last weekend.  I underestimated this team at the Masters and paid for it, I promised them on twitter I would not make that mistake again.  I am backing up my statement here!
Projection: 4 - 1

Team Mark Kean (20/20) "The Switch 2.0" - This is a new team as well this year, with all 4 guys playing with different teams last year.  Last year they were all competitors with one another in Ontario, this year they have come together to try and form a team to rival Ontario favorites Howard and Epping.  So far it has been mixed results.  Third place finishes in Oakville and Cookstown are promising but the missed qualification in 4 events, including last weekend in Whitby, are of concern.  These 4 guys switched gears and teams this year for better results, can they pull another switch this weekend and turn their season around?
Projection: 0 - 5

Team Glenn Howard (8/9) "The Champs" - Hard to argue against Glenn in this event, with 4 wins to his name.  Sure new team, same success though.  Why would anyone think this weekend should be any different?  They have qualified for the semi-final round in 3 of their 4 events this year.  However, no final appearances yet and their last event, The Masters, was a bit of a disappointment failing to qualify for the playoffs.  Can they regroup and defend the title here in the Soo?
Projection: 4 - 1

Team Brad Jacobs (1/3) "The Home Town Boys" - Ok so there are a few titles to give these guys "Team Muscle" "Team Golden" "Team Olympic" but they have those titles all throughout the year.  This is the one event where they are 100% the hometown team.  They have picked up a 1st, 2nd, 3rd and 4th place finish in 4 events this year, as well as a surprising missed qualification in Portage.  This is a grand slam event though, at home!  I expect them to come out fired up and ready to rock.  My only question would be how they handle the pressure of playing at home but hey these are Olympic champs.  They played on the largest ice possible and came out successful so why not here?
Projection: 4 - 1

POOL B


Team Steve Laycock (11/13) "Team Green" - Ok I know, these guys actually wear more orange during tour events but they are recent Sask representatives at the Brier and the only Saskatchewan team playing this weekend.  I have been open with admitting my slight bias towards this team this year, being from Sask originally and being very impressed with how they played at the 2014 Brier.  Plus, I have a slight bro-crush on Mr. Hot Shot Kirk Muyres, it's in the smile here folks, notice it this weekend and you will agree.  Ok, back to being less creepy....this is a team that can fly under the media attention radar and all of a sudden find themselves in the playoffs.  They have a tour victory already and made the playoffs at the Masters.  Why shouldn't we expect another playoff berth for them here?
Projection: 3 - 2 

Team Heath McCormick (29/68) "Team America" - It has been a tough season for the boys from Blaine (ok none of them are actually listed as living there but yet they are billed from Blaine).  This team has World Championship and Olympic experience though, never to be underestimated.  Unfortunately the results have not been there this year and, given the competition at this event, wins could be hard to come by this weekend.
Projection: 0 - 5

Team Mike McEwen (2/1) "The Favorites" - These boys have to be considered the favorites this weekend.  While that "disappointing" runner-up finish as the Masters ended the 4 event winning streak, the numbers and results put this team way ahead of the pack.  They have not played since the Masters but the time away I doubt will hurt this team.  They have the confidence and you have to think now that the winning streak is over, and given Jacobs will have more attention on him playing at home, could these guys fly a bit under the radar again?  The draw sets up very favorable for them.  Will we also see the return of the burnt sienna pants or will Mike and the boys whip out something new, purple perhaps to match the color scheme of the event?
Projection: 4 - 1

Team John Morris (6/75) "Team Canada" - Ok it is weird maybe to have this title on this team given Jacobs was wearing the red maple leaf winning the Olympics but this is going to be Team Canada at the upcoming Brier in Calgary so we should get used to calling them that now.  This team is still a bit of an unknown to be honest.  Big potential.  Big expectations.  Little time on the ice for fans to see so far.  They only have one event on the ice, at the Masters, and they failed to qualify losing in a tiebreaker.  Given the Masters was their first event playing against teams already well ahead of them in terms of competitive ice time, I would imagine they would still call their result a success.  Expect them to step it up to the competitive nature we are used to seeing from these four guys this weekend.
Projection: 4 - 1

Team John Shuster (23/22) "Team U.S.A." - So we have 2 teams from south of the border joining us in the Soo and they get placed in the same pool.  A bit disappointing in a way actually.  I think it would have been better to have them not be forced to play one another here but it is what it is.  This has been the more successful of the two American men's teams this season, with two qualification successes from the Stu Sells events.  Similar to their American counterparts though, I think the draw is going to work against them here.  This is a very competitive field and I think they will be playing more for bragging rights of America than for a playoff spot by the end of the week.
Projection: 1 - 4

Team Jeff Stoughton (14/7) "Team Turn Back the Clock" - Well anyone who thought Jeff Stoughton was going to ease off into retirement mode at the age of 51 should be kicking themselves.  Jeff went out and got himself a young front end to perfectly team with a seasoned back end and what a successful combination it has become.  They battled through tiebreakers all day to make the playoffs at the Masters and followed up that success with their first tour victory of the season two weeks ago in Swan River.  Forget age, remember experience.  Stoughton is curling as good as he ever has.
Projection: 3 - 2


POOL C


Team Brendan Bottcher (27/25) "Bottcher Express" - Many people who follow junior curling will be familiar with Brendan Bottcher.  He is a World Junior Champ (2012) and a CIS Champ (2013).  This year saw a minor line-up shift when regular vice Mick Lizmore left to form his own team.  Bottcher called up vet Tom Appleman and the combination has been a success.  They won their first event together in Edmonton and have qualified in their past 4 events.  They enter the National on the heels of a runner-up appearance in Red Deer, playing the final this past Monday.  Will the success in Red Deer carry over or will the lack of days off and travel cause issues in their first couple of games?  With this field, a slow start could end your hopes at a playoff before they even begin.
Projection: 1 - 4

Team Reid Carruthers (15/5) "Rama Rollercoaster" - Reid and the boys really have been Team Roller-Coaster this season!  Big expectations from this team heading into the season.  I wouldn't say they have disappointed, they have a huge win at Stu Sells in Toronto but that was over a month ago (see Team Rumfeldt).  They followed up a championship with failing to qualify in Portage, followed by a semi-final appearance in Gatineau to missing out on the playoffs again, two weeks ago in Swan River.  Look at the results this season: 6 - DNQ - DNQ - 1 - DNQ - 4 - DNQ.  So where does the Rama Rollercoaster end up this week?  At the top of the mountain or in the bottom of the valley?  There is something enduring about this team, you want to see Reid be successful moving back to skip and vice Braeden Moskowy find positive results after leaving Saskatchewan to curl with him.  As I have said in past blog posts, you feel this team can get over the hump and be successful, the problem is if they make it over one hump do they just take a fast nose dive down the rollercoaster again?  I am torn on how they will perform this week.
Projection: 2 - 3

Team Peter de Cruz (13/15) "Hopp Schwiiz" - Our 1 European team hitting the ice this weekend, coming from Switzerland.  The Swiss are really becoming a powerhouse threat in men's and women's curling, with many teams showing they are legitimate threats week in and week out.  Team de Cruz, with Benoit Schwarz throwing fourth stones, have had an up and down season.  Great success in qualifying at two events in Switzerland but only one qualification here in Canada (Gatineau).  They failed to qualify at the Masters, finishing with a 1-3 record.  I do expect a rebound event from them here though.  I think they can push for a playoff spot.
Projection: 3 - 2

Team Kevin Koe (4/6) "Watch Out For" - If any team can ruin the homecoming of Team Jacobs, dethrone defending champ Howard or stop Mike and the boys from starting another winning streak, this is the team to do it.  4 events this year, 4 qualifications, 1 title, 1 runner-up.  The results look good.  Remember this is a new team.  Sure Marc and Ben have played together for years but Marc has moved to a new position of vice.  Lainger has come over from Ontario.  These guys are still adjusting to one another.  They have a very favorable draw this week and should be undefeated heading into their final draw match-up with Gushue.  Both teams should already have playoff spots locked up by then as well.  Need a team to watch out for, a team who could easily go undefeated and walk away with a victory this weekend, this is the team!
Projection: 5 - 0

Team Brad Gushue (3/4) "The Rock" - The 2014 Masters Champs enter the second grand slam on a roll.  Brad lost the final of this event only 8 months ago to Glenn, both with very different teams mind you.  Brad has won this event in the past and, according to Kevin Martin's commentary during the Masters, he is the best curler on the ice right now.  They have qualified in every event they have entered this year and are coming off a victory.  Is there any reason not to think these guys could walk away with half of the year grand slam titles around their waist by the end of the weekend?  If you smell what the Rock is cooking, I wouldn't be surprised!
Projection: 4 - 1

Team Rob Rumfeldt (26/27) "Team Upset" - This team will have to really own the "Team Upset" name if they want to qualify for the playoffs this week.  This team has missed qualification in 3 of their 4 events this season but do have a 3rd place finish at Stu Sells Toronto on the resume.  Unfortunately again, that was over a month ago now and little success has been seen by this team since.  Great to be here, should be competitive in most games but wins will be very hard to come by for this team.
Projection: 0 - 5


Qualifiers: Team Koe, Team Epping, Team Howard, Team Jacobs, Team McEwen, Team Morris, Team Gushue, Team Stoughton

Championship: Team Brad Jacobs over Team Kevin Koe