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Tuesday, 20 January 2015

Scotties Tissues Will Be On Hand This Week
Women's Provincial Champions to be Crowned

Last week kicked off the Drive to the Scotties with women's provincial champions crowned in Northern Ontario, Quebec and Newfoundland & Labrador.  I must give myself a little pat on the back as I correctly predicted all three provincial winners.  As we head into the big weekend of action, where 7 provincial champions will be determined, let's take a quick look at who already has their tickets punched to Moose Jaw, SK:

Yukon - Sarah Koltun
Northwest Territories - Kerry Galusha
Northern Ontario - Tracey Horgan
Quebec - Lauren Mann
Newfoundland & Labrador - Heather Strong
Team Canada - Rachel Homan

Now, as discussed in my blog post last week, originally 4 teams were entered into the pre-qualification event where the sole winner would earn the 12th and final spot in the Scotties Tournament of Hearts.  Unfortunately the territory of Nunavut has withdrawn their spot from the pre-qualification as they feel they still need more time to develop the sport and become competitive.  Special thanks to #PolarPower Kerry Galusha for confirming this with me yesterday.  As a result, three teams will now compete:  Yukon, Northwest Territories and Northern Ontario.

But before we get too excited about Scotties predictions, we still have provincial championships to finalize.  This is going to be a stressful weekend for many of the top teams across the country.  The big dreams of competing on the national stage and vying for a national championship are going to be dashed though for many teams.  Only 1 can come out unscathed and wearing the purple heart. 

Luckily for us curling fans, Sportsnet will be offering coverage of the playoffs in many of the provinces this weekend.  For a detailed look at the coverage and who will be providing play by play, visit HERE.  I would encourage those who live around (or are visiting the nearby area) of Maple Ridge, BC, Lacombe, AB, Assiniboia, SK, Winkler, MB, Penetanguishene, ON, Dartmouth, NS or Summerside, PEI to take in the action live.  Go out and cheer on the teams competing to be your provincial representative.

With all the action going on, so many teams competing, let #TwineTime offer up a province by province preview of who to watch, who should win and who could pull the upsets this weekend.

British Columbia

All eyes will be focused on past BC Champ and World Champion Kelley Scott this weekend.  With a new team in front of her, can she reclaim the BC title and get back to the Scotties?  Does she have another run towards a national championship still in her?  Defending champ Kesa Van Osch would like to prove last year's win wasn't a fluke and show there is a changing of the guard in BC.  Can she handle the pressure of being a defending champion though?  Regular BC provincial competitors Patti Knezevic, Kristy Lewis and Dailene Silverton will also be trying to knock off the two favorites.

8 teams will be competing in Maple Ridge under a triple knockout format.  The A qualifier will play the B qualifier and the two C qualifiers will play against one another in the Page Playoff format.  This will be different from previous years where a round robin format was used.

Playoff Teams:  Team Scott, Team Van Osch, Team Lewis, Team Walk 
BC Champion:  Team Scott over Team Van Osch

Alberta

Of all the provincial championships, I think more focus will be on Lacombe than anywhere else.  The Jiffy Lube Alberta Scotties will have one of the deepest fields in provincial history, of any province.  There are quite possibly 4 or 5 teams with a realistic shot at winning this provincial championship.  In fact, there are 3 or 4 teams from this province that could end up in Moose Jaw and have a realistic shot at winning the Scotties.  This field is very deep and those who make it down to Lacombe are going to be in for a treat.  I was in Lacombe for last year's Men's Boston Pizza Cup and the facility is beautiful, the volunteers are amazing and the people are friendly.  I would highly recommend it.

Defending champ Val Sweeting will be the favorite heading into the event.  They have had one of the best season's on tour this year and come in off a successful Continental Cup and competing in the TSN Skins game.  Past Scotties champ Heather Nedohin will also be a team to watch.  With Amy Nixon as vice this year, we could see more "sugarballs" comments in Moose Jaw.  Wildcard is how newly planted AB resident Chelsea Carey handles her first Alberta provincial championship.  After years of torment, Carey finally won the Manitoba championship last year and ended with a 3rd place finish at the Scotties.  In a shocking move, she left behind her team, picked up and moved to Edmonton to start fresh.  Will that move prove to be a good thing or will Carey suffer deja vu with more provincial disappointment?  Looking for a dark horse in this field?  Look no further than past champ and previous Olympian Shannon Kleibrink.  Kleibrink still has the weapons to be a threat on the provincial level.  She may not be as big a threat on the national scene against the liked of Homan and Jones but she can knock off some of the teams ranked above her this week.

Similar to BC, Alberta uses the triple knockout format with a page playoff to crown their champion.  There will be 12 teams competing in Lacombe with the Top 4 seeds (Sweeting, Nedohin, Carey, Kleibrink) earning opening draw byes.

Playoff Teams: Team Sweeting, Team Nedohin, Team Carey, Team Kaufman
Alberta Champion:  Team Sweeting over Team Nedohin

Saskatchewan

The big story in Assiniboia will be the welcoming back of Stef Lawton.  Lawton has taken most of the season off to welcome a new addition to her family, with vice Sherry Anderson leading the team in her absence.  Stef will be returning to skipping duties this week though.  The Lawton team enters as defending champions and is coming off a 4th place finish at last year's Scotties.  With Moose Jaw hosting this year, they would love to better that result in front of the home province fans.  The question will be if Lawton can get right back into competition mode after the long layoff.  Interesting note, Lawton has won three provincial titles with all three wins coming when the provincial championship is hosted in Saskatoon.  Every time the championship is held elsewhere, Lawton has come up short of the provincial title.  This year's event is in Assiniboia.  Will the curse continue?

Looking to dethrown the defending champ will be previous champ Michelle Englot.  Englot will have some curling royalty on her side this week as well with former Canadian, World and Olympic Champion Russ Howard serving as their team coach (with Russ's daughter Ashley in 2nd position).  Englot has derailed Latwon in the past and they did meet in last year's provincial final.  Anything less would be a surprise.

There could be some dark horse challenges to the top two teams though.  Trish Paulson, Chantelle Eberle and Brett Barber have put together successful seasons on both the World Curling Tour and SK tour and could pose big threats to the favorites.  

Saskatchewan uses a different format for their provincial championship.  The twelve competing teams are divided into two pools of six teams.  The top two teams in each pool advance to the 1vs1 page playoff game while the pool runner-ups advance to the 2vs2 page playoff.  Lawton may be the top seed but she was drawn into the more challenging pool, having to face Paulson, Barber and Mandy Selzer.  If she is not on top of her game early, it could a quick end to the provincial chase. 

Playoff Teams:  Team Lawton, Team Englot, Team Paulson, Team Eberle
Saskatchewan Champion:  Team Lawton over Team Englot   

Manitoba

The race for the buffalo goes through Team Jennifer Jones.  The Olympic champions are back, having missed last year's event because of their Team Canada berth in Sochi, Russia.  They will be HUGE favorites to win this week in Winkler.  They are also coming off a successful Continental Cup and TSN Skins Game appearances.  There has been talk all season about this team struggling on tour and just not looking their best.  Let's remember they are coming off an Olympic Gold Medal year, that cannot be easy.  At the same time, even Team Jones curling 70-80% of their best can best 85-90% of the teams on tour any given day. 

With Carey running to Alberta, can anyone step up and stop the Jones Train now?  Former Carey vice Kristy McDonald is probably the best bet.  McDonald had a successful year on tour with a new team and stepping into the skip position.  She has the big game to compete but sometimes get caught in tough strategic ends, leaving her with difficult low percentage shots to save an end.  If she can stay away from getting caught up in that kind of game play, she should be a threat to Jones.

Past champions Jill Thurston and Janet Harvey return looking to refind the magic of the past.  Last year's runner-up Kerri Einarson also returns and could find herself battling for a playoff spot by the end of the week.

Similar to Saskatchewan format, the 16 teams competing will be divided into two pool of 8 and compete in a round robin format.  The two pool winners advance to the 1vs1 page playoff while the runner-up teams compete in the do or die 2vs2 page playoff.  The draw gods were on Jones' side as she avoided McDonald, Thurston, Harvey and Einarson.  She should have little trouble going undefeated in the round robin.  The other pool, unfortunately, is going to be a cat fight for the top two spots.  I expect some tiebreakers may be needed.

Playoff Spots:  Team Jones, Team McDonald, Team Montford, Team Thurston
Manitoba Championship:  Team Jones over Team McDonald

Ontario

The Ontario Scotties got under way yesterday with their opening round robin draw.  The format in Ontario is a 10-team round robin with the top 4 teams advancing to the page playoff.

Defending champion Alison Flaxey returns hoping to find the magic that brought her a provincial championship last season.  She will be faced with heavy competition though in the form of past champion Sherry Middaugh.  Middaugh stumbled last year at this event.  I think her result had more to do with coming off a disappointing Olympic Trials final loss to Jennifer Jones than being outcurled be her competition.  Middaugh has regained her focus though and will want to get back to the national stage as she eyes her 8th Scotties appearance but first since 2011.

Besides the top two teams, there are a few others to keep an eye on this week.  Julie Hastings is always a threat every year at this event, coming up just short in the provincial final last year to Flaxey.  Megan Balsdon, Clancy Grandy and Rhonda Varnes could also find themselves in a playoff position near the end of the round robin.  Many expected Middaugh to run away with this last year after her showing in the Olympic trials and look what happened.  Could this be another year of expect the unexpected in Ontario?

Playoff Teams:  Team Middaugh, Team Hastings, Team Varnes, Team Flaxey
Ontario Championship:  Team Middaugh over Team Hastings

Nova Scotia

This could be a wide-open event in Darmouth.  Defending champion Heather Smith is not playing.  Last year's runner-up Kelly McIntosh is also not in Darmouth.  So who can we expect to represent the Bluenose province this year?

Well there is one very familiar name returning...Mary-Anne Arsenault.  She is skipping a young team this year who will be able to lean on her experience as a five-time world champion.  Arseanualt suffered a surprising semi-final defeat last year to McIntosh when many expected her to be the co-favorite with Smith.  She is going to be wearing the favorite badge this week and should easily live up to that billing.

Can anyone stand in her way?  Well Sarah Murphy (nee Rhyno) could pose a challenge.  Murphy has been here before and has an experienced vice in previous champion Mary Mattatall.  If you are looking for a true dark horse though, I would look no further than Danielle Parsons.  Parsons has been to back-to-back Scotties as vice for Smith and came away with back to back 3rd place finishes.  Parsons spent the past few seasons curling second on Andrea Kelly's team in New Brunswick but has returned to her home province to skip her own team.  She has been to the past 4 Scotties.  The big question mark on her is how she handles the skip position.  I am very tempted to pick her to knock off the favorite Arsenault this week.

Nova Scotia uses a round robin format with all 8 teams getting to play one another.  The top team earns a bye into the provincial final while the second and third place teams meet in a semi-final game.

Playoff Teams:  Team Arsenault, Team Parsons, Team Murphy
Nova Scotia Championship:  Team Arsenualt over Team Parsons

Prince Edward Island

Our smallest province also has the smallest amount of teams competing.  Only 4 teams are entered in this year's PEI Scotties.  These teams will be quite familiar with one another though as they were all competing at last year's PEI Scotties.  With only four teams competing in a round robin format, every game is important.  The top three teams make the playoffs with the first place team earning a bye to the championship final.  Everyone will want that easier route to Moose Jaw.

Defending champion Kim Dolan returns after playing spoiler last year.  Dolan needed to win her final game to snag just a playoff spot.  She upset Shirley Bradley and undefeated Kathy O'Rourke to win her 13th Scotties berth.  Can she replicate the magic this year?  I am not too confident.

Kathy O'Rourke will return looking to avenge the defeat last year.  She dominated the round robin portion and looked like a lock for the Scotties until she ran into a red hot Dolan in the final.  O'Rourke will be looking for her 7th Scotties purple heart and first trip to the national championship since the infamous 2010 championship loss.

Suzanne Birt would like to just forget 2014 all together.  She entered last year's event being dubber the favorite and the defending champ and she fell flat, missing the playoffs.  Birt is another experienced skip seeking her 8th Heart appearance.  She has the full team back, including 9-time Hearts representative Shelly Bradley at vice.

This is a wide open field with any of the above three teams having a realistic shot at winning.  All have experience.  All have lived up to their expectations.  All have had huge shocking disappointments.  Which team can get on the best role near the end of the week will be the question.

Playoff Teams:  Team Birt, Team O'Rourke, Team Dolan
PEI Championship:  Team Birt over Team O'Rourke

Lets the rocks fly and land where they may over the next week.  Best of luck to all the teams competing.  You have all made this a fun 2014-2015 curling season.  Curlers and fans alike, enjoy the experience at the provincial championship.  The Scotties are coming......