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Wednesday, 8 April 2015

Happy 10th Anniversary Players' Championship
Final Ladies Grand Slam Event Celebrates a Milestone

The best female curlers in the world have ascended into a building previously reserved for the loud cheers of tough guys.  But move over Domi; JJ and the Swiss Domination are rolling into the old Maple Leaf Gardens and taking over. 

2015 will mark the 10th Players' Championship for the best female curling teams.  And the most dominant champion of the event will be back in an attempt to retain her title.  Last year, Jennifer Jones laid claim to her record 5th Players' title (2014, 2011, 2009, 2007, 2006).  She has won this event more than anyone else combined.  The 2014 Olympic champions and reigning Canadian champions will enter this week's event as a huge favorite once again.

This year's event will have a very strong international flavor.  In fact, can we just assume Pool A to be the World Championship Replay Division?  4 of the 6 teams competing in Pool A were at the world championship, plus add in the addition of last year's world champion and you have one strong international pool of talent.  In fact, the 4 playoff teams in Beijing, China are all in Pool A so expect some fireworks.  Pool B is no lightweight though either with 2 more international teams competing.  Half of the teams competing this year are representing nations other than Canada, marking this event as a mini-world championship in a way.  Oddly enough, the last time this event was held in Toronto (2013), we saw our first all-international championship final with Scotland's Even Muirhead besting Sweden's Margaretha Sigfridsson.  Muirhead remains the only non-Canadian, men or women, to win a Players' Championship.

In a slight change from the men, the ladies are in a battle for the Rogers Grand Slam Cup.  During the season, the grand slam events culminate in points earned in a race for the Pinty's Grand Slam of Curling season championship.  Entering this event, the race could not be more close.  Current leader Val Sweeting is holding a lose grip on top spot, only three point up on second place Rachel Homan.  The 2014/15 Rogers Grand Slam Cup champion will come down to the final few draws of the season...and just the added intrigue and excitement the players and fans like to see.

The format is similar to the men's competition.  12 teams divided into two pools of 6 where each team will play their pool competitors.  At the end of the round robin, the top 6 overall teams will advance to the playoffs with the top 2 teams receiving bye's to the semifinal.  Let's take a look at our competitors:

Pool A

Team Jones (World Curling Tour Ranking: 1) - The defending champions.  The 2014 Olympic gold medalists.  The reigning Canadian champions.  What more can really be said about this team that hasn't already?  Expect them to battle not just for a playoff spot but for claiming another Players' Championship.  As noted above, this is Jones' event and she seems quite comfortable with keeping it that way.  Plus, you have to think revenge will be on her mind given the recent silver medal finish at in China at the world championships.  And she has the perfect pool to extract her revenge on.

Team Muirhead (4) - The only international team to claim this title, Eve looks primed to do it again.  She won her first grand slam event of the season at the Canadian Open and would like nothing more than to add to her title count.  A disappointing world championships saw them just miss the podium, losing to fellow pool A competitors Team Sidorova (Russia).  Revenge as well?

Team Paetz (5) - Hello 2015 Women's World Champions!  The first of three Switzerland teams competing this week as well.  The Swiss produce great chocolate...great watches...and, apparently, the most dominant female curling teams in the world.  3 world championships in 4 years...and with 3 different teams.  Now that is impressive.  You have to think Paetz will be wanting to prove her dominant performance in China was not a fluke.  Expect this team to give everyone a run for their money.  Just ask Ms. Jones...she fell victim to Paetz three times in Beijing.  When was the last time any team beat Jones three times at one event?  Take the world champions VERY serious this week!

Team Feltscher (6) - And speaking of Swiss world champions, hello 2014 Women's World Champions!  Our second Swiss Miss team worth watching this week.  Ok, so they couldn't defend their title this year because they lost their national championship but look who they lost too...the same team that won it all.  How is that for national competition?  This team is also the current European Champions.  Crazy to think a team that just won the European Championship couldn't in turn get out of their country because they lost to a team that ended up winning the worlds.  Something really is in that Swiss chocolate!

Team Sidorova (8) - The Russian bombshells are back and everyone is ready to watch...for more reason than you may think.  Yes, visually, this is a great team to watch and cheer for.  But don't let the looks blind you to the talent.  This is a team with back-to-back world championship bronze medals and a threat in every event they enter.  They have single handedly put female Russian curling on the map.  Want another impressive resume stat?  Sidorova also claimed the 2015 World University Games gold medal this year in Spain.

Team Nedohin (12) - Another 12th seed, another retirement.  Similar to the men side, the 12th ranked team competing in the women's is a skip who also recently announced her retirement.  Skip Heather Nedohin will be taking a step back from the game at the conclusion of this event.  Her team will survive though adding Chelsea Carey to the skip position for next season.  Nedohin is in tough with this pool but she is a two-time Scotties champ and world bronze medalist, don't count her out yet.  She would love to pull a Marin of her own at this event and shock the field by sliding out of the house for a final time with a championship title to her credit.  Will it be tough?  Yes.  Will it be impossible?  No.

Pool B

Team Sweeting (2) - Sweeting has really been the team of the year, similar to McEwen on the men's tour.  Val picked up her first grand slam title at the Masters and followed that up with a win at the Canada Cup.  With her new team in line, they entered the Scotties once again representing Alberta and, once again, made the final.  Back-to-back silver medal performances at a national championship can be tough on a skip but Val seems to continue looking forward and moving towards improving each event, game, end at a time.  This team is a huge threat to win here.

Team Homan (3) - The grand slam season has been an up and down one for the Ottawa team.  Great results but just unable to close out the win during the weekend.  A semifinal appearance at the Masters and a runner-up finish at Canadian Open, Rachel will be looking to go one better this week.  Interesting enough, she lands in the pool with the team whom are helping to develop the new rivalry in women's curling: Sweeting!  These two teams seem destined to meet again over the weekend.

Team Tirinzoni (7) - The third team from Switzerland to compete and the third Swiss team to have a realistic shot at winning this event.  Tirinzoni has found great success on tour this year, winning the Stu Sells and losing the Prairie Showdown to Homan.  This team may not garner lots of media or fan attention but they should be underestimated.  Just remember last year when they were a semifinalist.  Don't be surprised to see lots of Red and White over the weekend...and I am not talking about Team Canada.

Team Middaugh (9) - Ah Sherry, always a crowd favorite and this week should be no different.  Every event this team enters it seems they have a strong fan base cheering them on...and for great reason.  This is a team with not only a great reputation of outstanding curling but also being a friendly team off the ice to fans.  Why wouldn't you want to see them succeed?  Are they a threat to win this event?  Perhaps not.  But I wouldn't underestimate them either.  How many of you pegged them to get oh so close to being Team Canada at the 2014 Sochi Olympics?  Yup, didn't think so and look how that almost turned out!

Team Sigfridsson (10) - Ok, I will admit this was the team #TwineTime fully expected to win the world championship this year.  But the wheels kind of fell off in Sapporo and they missed the playoffs completely.  But this is still the 2014 Olympic silver medalists and, as noted above, finished runner-up here the last time this event was held in Toronto.  Also worth noting, previous Team Homan member Ali Kreviazuk will be stepping in at second for the team this week.  Ali vs Rachel takes place in the opening draw!  (Note: Rachel won in a blowout...better luck next time Ali)

Team McDonald (13) - The long shot to win this week would easily be Winnipeg's Kristy McDonald.  Not because they cannot curl but because they are up against the best in the world and the experience factor can work against them.  Having said that, there is something very freeing about getting to step onto the ice with no pressure and just play your heart out.  While media and fans may have lower expectations for this team, the under the radar image might just be what they need to pull off a few upsets.

Projected Standings

Pool A

Paetz:  4 - 1
Jones:  3 - 2
Feltscher:  3 - 2
Muirhead:  3 - 2
Sidorova:  1 - 4
Nedohin:  1 - 4

Pool B

Homan:  5 - 0
Sweeting:  3 - 2
Tirinzoni:  3 - 2
Sigfridsson:  2 - 3
Middaugh:  1 - 4
McDonald:  1 - 4


Quarterfinals:  Sweeting def. Jones
                        Tirinzoni def. Feltscher

Semifinals:  Homan def. Tirinzoni
                    Paetz def. Sweeting

PLAYERS' CHAMPIONSHIP FINAL:  Team Alina Paetz def. Team Rachel Homan - I am going with a slight upset here.  This Paetz team was so impressive at the world championships and I just do not see them letting up in Toronto.  I think they have confidence they never really had before and once you feel like you can beat any team matched up against you on the ice, you are almost unstoppable.  The big game for them will be that final round robin game against Jennifer Jones.  The Paetz - Jones game will have huge playoff implications and could be the decider between either a team going home, dropping to the quarterfinal or having that pivotal bye to the semi.  Homan, on the other hand, should roll through her pool games and earn that coveted bye.  But I think this final will continue along the prototype of year Homan and company are having.  Play great during the week, make the playoffs and come up just short against a hotter team.  I think it is time the world champions show Canadian curling fans why they are the best in the world right now.

As always, I highly recommend you Live it Live if you are in Toronto this week and see the action in person.  And, of course, if not, check out Sportsnet and CurlingGeek for draw by draw and shot by shot coverage.  Feel free to share your thoughts with me on my predictions, whether you agree or disagree.  And check out my preview of the men's players' championship HERE

Enjoy the action everyone...it has been a great curling season!