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Tuesday, 31 March 2015

So

The Metro Centre is Rockin' & Rollin'
2015 World Men's Curling Championship hits the Canadian East Coast

What a curling season we have had folks.  We have seen some of the best shots ever recorded on tour.  We have seen some teams dominate while others disappoint.  We saw classic upsets and favorites roll.  But the season is entering the 10th end of play and we are at the point where we need to crown our men's world champion.  Enter Halifax!  The top 12 nations have crowned their national champions and the battle for men's curling world supremacy is underway.

Now, to be fair, I realize this event started on Saturday.  But I have not seen any of the games and was out of town all weekend finalizing my transition move from one big city to another.  So I am making an honest attempt to be as objective as possible without letting any results dictate my preview.

As I did with Sapporo, I wanted to provide a few DYK moments on the City of Halifax:

  • In a ranking conducted by fDi magazine, Halifax was ranked #1 on a list of "large cities by qualify of life" and #2 on a list of "large cities of the future" conducted for North and South American cities.
  • The tallest building in Atlantic Canada is the Fenwick Tower, a residential apartment building in south Halifax.  Built in 1971, the tower consists of 33 stories and stands at 322 feet.
  • Halifax is home to many rugby teams, including an Australian Rules Football team.
  • The city serves as a major hub for post-secondary education in Atlantic Canada with the following institutions:  Dalhousie University, St. Mary's University, Mount St. Vincent University, Atlantic School of Theology and many others.
So now that you know about the host city, time to learn about the national teams competing for the world championship title.

The Favorites

Team Canada (Pat Simmons) - The home country team has to enter as favorites.  The team has been quite a story over the past year.  Last year, led by former skip Kevin Koe, they won the Brier and represented Canada at the world championships.  Prior to the beginning of the championships, it was announced the team would see skip Koe leaving the team at the conclusion of the season.  The team stayed focused as best as they could but had a disappointing 4th place finish last year in China.  Enter the off season and the team picked up past Olympic and World Champion John Morris to lead the team.  With qualification already secured at the 2015 Brier due to the new format addition of Team Canada, the team played a minimal schedule on tour.  The results weren't the best but when it mattered they poured it on.  A slow start at the Brier in Calgary was all erased on the "move heard around Canada".  Skip John Morris made the call to move himself to vice and promote Pat Simmons to skip and...BOOM!...nobody could stop them.  They rolled through the end of the week and the playoffs and, to the surprise of many, repeated as champions.  They enter Halifax on an emotional high and have the capabilities to run the table.  If "Perfect Pat the Simmonator" plays like he did in Calgary...watch out world!  Team Canada could claim their 35th world title, and first since 2012.

Team Norway (Thomas Ulsrud) - The defending champions are back!  And they should easily be considered the co-favorites.  Ulsrud enters his 11th World Championship but first as the defending champ.  With all those appearances, prior to last year, Ulsrud only had 3 bronze medal finishes (2009, 2008, 2006).  How will Ulsrud handle the pressure of being the defending champion is meant to be seen.  Ulsrud has a past history of cracking a bit under pressure and expectation but I just don't see that happening this year.  Given the field, I fully expect to see Norway be around by the weekend.

Watch Out For

Team Sweden (Nik Edin) - Speaking of past champions, welcome back to the world stage Mr. Edin.  The 2013 World Champion did not qualify to represent Sweden last year.  However, the members of his team were there...coming up short in the world final vs. Norway.  This team will be hungry to take it one step further.  Edin will want to get back the world title rival Nordic country Norway stole from them last year.  The members of Nik's new team will want to erase the silver medal finish last year and hope to bring a 7th world championship to the land of "For Sverige - i tiden".  If I was a betting man, I would put some money on this team to be around over the weekend.  They have had a great season on tour and enter this event off a runner-up finish at the recent Grand Slam event, the Elite 10, in Fort McMurray, AB.  Plus, make note, recent world championships held in Canada have proven to be VERY successful for Edin with a gold medal (2013, Victoria) and a bronze medal (2011, Regina).  He is very comfortable playing in front of Canadian fans...and I think they love him just as much.  When he made an appearance at the Patch during the Brier, the guy was swarmed with curling fans all evening.  Even your's truly, a big Edin fan, couldn't get close enough for even a picture.  Was my only disappointment of the week!

The Dark Horse

Team Finland (Aku Kauste) - Welcome back to the World Championship Finland.  Oh how we have missed you.  A country once led by the always popular Markku Uusipaavalniemi has struggled in recent years to stay prominent on the world championship scene since Markku took a step back from the more competitive curling scene.  Enter Aku...a member of Markku's 2002 and 2003 world championship participating teams (as second).  Aku has made the transition to skip in 2012 and found instant success.  Taking over as the national champion of a country sitting in Group B among the European nations and missing the world championship after a long successful history could not have been easy.  Kauste found the success though and brought back the relevance in winning Group B and promoting Finland to Group A for 2013, leading to his first world championship experience as a skip the same year.  2013 was a disappointment though as the team finished in last place with a 2-9 record and failed to qualify for last year's championship.  The 2014-2015 season has been more successful though and the team enters their second championship with more experience and confidence.  After needing to qualify out of Group B once again in Europe, this time they not only won Group B but also knocked off Germany in two straight games to win the world challenger and qualify for Halifax.  Worth noting, Kauste won a bronze medal at the 2012 European Mixed Curling Championship.

The Field

Team China (Zang Jailiang) - This year marks Zang Jailiang's 7th world championship appearance.  When he made his debut in Grand Folks (2009), his China team made their presence known with upset round-robin wins over Canada (Martin) and Norway (Ulsrud).  In fact, his team accomplished a first for Asia-Pacific countries in men's curling when they qualified for the playoffs.  Unfortunately the run that year ended in a bronze medal loss to Norway.  Expectations became high for Team China but they have failed to come close to matching this feat.  Disappointing results at the 2010 and 2014 Winter Olympics and a failure to make the playoffs since the huge debut leave many wondering if this team was just a one-off in 2009.  The experience and talent is there though.  The field this year is a manageable one and that 4th playoff spot is wide open I think.  I'm just not sure they can make it happen.

Team Czech Republic (Jiri Snitil) - Similar to above, 2015 will be the 7th championship appearance for Czech skip Snitil.  Becoming a regular fixture at world championships is a plus to grow the sport in the Czech Republic; however, the finishing results have just not been there.  The best result so far is a 7th place finish last year.  Snitil can deliver the big shots when needed, one only has to look back at his improbable run to a bronze medal at the 2012 European Championships.  Based on last year it appears the Snitil stock is trending upwards but, at the age of 40 this year, how much further can it rise?

Team Italy (Joel Retornaz) - Retornaz's biggest claim to curling fame probably occurred on Saturday February 18, 2006.  Competing in the Winter Olympics, the grandest stage of all, skipping little unknown Team Italy against the powerhouse and medal favorite Team Canada (Gushue), Retornaz provided the upset of the games when Little Italy knocked off the Maple Leaf in an extra end.  This victory really helped develop the passion of the sport in Italy.  Unfortunately, the positive results on the world stage have been few and far between.  It is great to have Italy back at the world championships though, this will be their first appearance since 2010 when they were the host nation.  Staying out of last place though would be a victory this year.

Team Japan (Yusuke Morozumi) - This could be the breakthrough year for the Land of the Rising Sun!  Morozumi is making only his 4th world championship appearance and 3rd as a skip.  His first two appearances (2009, 2013) saw disappointing 3-8 finishes but last year was a whole other story.  Yusuke become the dark horse of the event, finishing with a strong 7-4 record and qualifying for a tie-breaker.  Unfortunately the team would lose the tie-breaker to eventual runner-up Sweden (O. Eriksson) but their presence was known.  This team has played a very active schedule on the world curling tour this year and seems to be ready to make the next step towards the podium.  The opportunity is there this year and I think it is Team Japan's for the taking.  Don't be surprised to see this team sneak right into the playoff picture.

Team Russia (Evgeny Arkhipov) - We have covered some serious vets of the curling world above but with Team Russia we welcome a serious contender from the junior ranks.  Arkhipov returns to the world championships after making his debut last year in China.  2014 was built to possibly be a huge one for Russian curling with hosting the Winter Olympics and qualifying for the world championships.  Unfortunately both ended with disappointment.  A lackluster 2-5 record in Sochi followed by a 2-9 finish in Beijing left Russia with a lot of work to do to catch the curling powerhouse nations.  However, Evgeny can close the gap.  He has put together a very successful junior career, winning a silver medal at the 2013 World Junior Championships (Sochi) and recently taking home a silver medal at the 2015 Winter Universiade (Granada, Spain).  He has the ability to compete but could still be another two or three years away from becoming a serious playoff threat.  If they can pull out 4 or 5 wins this week, that would be a huge success and step in the right direction for the future.

Team Scotland (Ewan MacDonald) - What can I possibly say about Ewan MacDonald that hasn't been said?  This guy has done it all and competed on every major international stage possible.  He is a three-time world champion, playing second for Hammy McMillan (1999) and third for David Murdoch (2006, 2009).  He has made 3 Olympic appearances (2002, 2006, 2010), finishing fourth in 2006 and losing a tie-breaker in 2010.  This year will be MacDonald's 10th world championship appearance.  He made his skipping debut at last year's world championships and wound up with a disappointing 3-8 record.  I want to believe this team is capable of a better showing but I am not sold.  My head says this team will put together 4 wins, my heart wants to believe they can put together 5 or 6.  Which one will MacDonald prove correct: head or heart?

Team Switzerland (Mark Pfister) - Our first unknown, Mark Pfister and Team Switzerland.  A surprise representative, beating favorites Sven Michel and Peter de Cruz.  But don't let the unknown name and team lead you to believe they cannot compete with the more familiar and experienced teams this week.  These guys come to Halifax with a ton of confidence and a belief they can win it all.  They may only be ranked 31st on the World Curling Tour Order of Merit but they have produced some strong results this season, including a runner-up finish at the Curling Masters Champery and quarterfinal showings in Baden, Switzerland, Basel and Calgary.  In those 4 events alone they have played (and often beat) many of the teams they will be facing this week so while this team may be unfamiliar to a few fans, they are not unknown to their competitors.  Besides, we only have to look back a few weeks to the women's world championships to see what an "unknown" team from Switzerland is capable of doing.  Can Pfister and co. follow in the footsteps of Patz?  Don't be shocked if it does.

Team United States (John Shuster) - Shuster returns to the world championships after a few years absence.  Shuster is a very familiar name though within the curling circle, having competed in the 2006, 2010 and 2014 Winter Olympics.  Shuster really has become Team America!  His greatest success on the international scene was his bronze medal finish in Turin at the 2006 Winter Olympics.  Unfortunately, since that incredible run he has been unable to find his footing on a podium.  This will be Shuster's 5th world championship appearance but first since 2009.  With a brand new team supporting him (Tyler George at vice and Matt Hamilton at second), in addition to regular lead John Landsteiner, Team America could pull a few surprises this week.  While I don't expect them to contend for a podium finish, I think a 5 win week is a strong reality.  Who knows, with how open I forsee that 4th playoff spot being, 6 wins could land a tie-breaker and then all bets are off.  If they can get on a roll in the middle of the week, they could make a surprise push.

Page Playoff

1 vs 2: Team Canada (Simmons) over Team Norway (Ulsrud)
3 vs. 4:  Team Sweden (Edin) over Team Japan (Morozumi)

Semi-final:  Team Sweden (Edin) over Team Norway (Ulsrud)

Bronze Medal:  Team Norway (Ulsrud) over Team Japan (Morozumi)

MEN'S WORLD CHAMPIONSHIP FINAL:  Team Canada (Simmons) over Team Sweden (Edin) - Ok, I will admit I am a HUGE Edin fan.  If you have been reading my posts throughout the season that shouldn't come as a big shock to you.  I just really like the team Edin has put together this year and think they could be a threat for many years.  But I am finding it very difficult to bet against Team Canada this year.  I made the mistake of undervaluing their potential to repeat at the Brier and Perfect Pat made me pay for that oversight.  This team just is firing at all cylinders entering the event and has more confidence than I think they may even know what to do with.  Plus add in the bonus of curling in front of home country, curling crazy fans in Halifax and the support will be through the roof.  Even if the team struggles a bit in games, I think the combination of Perfect Pat and crowd support can carry them through those tough close games.  I don't expect Edin to just roll over though and would not be surprised if we see a final similar to the Brier championship vs. Jacobs.  Ok, well without all the blank ends of course.  Edin will put rocks in play and is not afraid to be aggressive.  Sometimes that works to his advantage and if Perfect Pat isn't perfect, Edin could land one big end, enough to secure another world championship.  But Johnny Mo and Perfect Pat seem ready to bring that world championship back to Canada.

I think we are going to be in for an outstanding week of high caliber curling action.  If you are in the Halifax area during the week, I encourage you to head down to the Metro Centre and check out a few draws.  You will not be disappointed!

As always, feel free to agree or disagree with me.  But one thing we can always agree on is let's see some outstanding shots, smart strategy and great curling action on the ice.

Enjoy Halifax everyone....



Thursday, 26 March 2015

The Road to the Ed Chynoweth Cup Begins
WHL Round 1 features top notch rivalry series




Spring is here and that means playoff hockey action has come alive.  The Western Hockey League begins their battle towards crowing a champion this week.  The race to skate away with the Ed Chynoweth Cup is a long and sometimes grueling process but one every young man dreams about.  The hours of practice, the long road trips in and out of barn after barn and the ups and downs of a season are all worth it when you get your moment to hoist the WHL championship trophy and know you are on your way to the Memorial Cup, the Canadian Hockey League's year end tournament to crown the number 1 junior team in North America.

Last year, the WHL finally broke through and scored a Memorial Cup title after a long drought of 5 years.  Ok 5 years may not seem that long but remember, the Memorial Cup is only a 4 team tournament with the champions of the WHL, OHL and QMJHL receiving an invite along with the host team.  In those 5 years, twice the WHL had a 50% chance of taking home the title with being the host league....both times they came up short (2010, Brandon and 2013, Saskatoon).  Worth noting, in those same 5 years the WHL did claim the runner-up position 3 times, more than any other league.  But 2013-2014 was a different story.  The WHL Champion Edmonton Oil Kings returned to the Memorial Cup looking to revenge their previous appearance only two years prior.  Considered underdogs against the favored OHL teams London and host Guelph, the Oil Kings defied the odds going 1-2 in the round robin, winning a triple OT semi-final gave vs QMJHL Champion Val d'Or and then defeating the host Storm 6-3 to win the title.  Could we see a WHL repeat this year in Quebec City?  The WHL is loaded with talent and I would not be surprised.

A note on the playoff format change this year.  The WHL has adopted the NHL playoff format where the top three teams in each division automatically qualify for the playoffs with the two remaining wild card spots going to the two best remaining teams.  In the NHL I like the format but in a smaller league like the WHL I am not as much a fan.  This year, as has been the case for the past few years, we have seen one division in both conferences (Central Divison - Eastern Conference & U.S. Division - Western Conference) to be head and toe above their competition.  Sure we still saw 5 teams from both of the traditional power conferences make the playoffs this year but, with the new format, seeding has placed teams at more of a disadvantage.  The defending champion Oil Kings, for instance, enter as the second wildcard team (last playoff team) in the Eastern Conference even though their point total is higher than the Swift Current Broncos, the 3rd place team in the Eastern division.  As a result, Edmonton has to travel to Brandon for the opening round rather than play Calgary, whom they would have played under the old format.  I don't know about you but an Edmonton - Calgary opening round playoff series sounds more exciting....plus the travel to Brandon does put the defending champs at a major disadvantage.  But hey....I suppose at the end of the day you play the games in front of you and, if you play your style of game and beat your opponent, it doesn't matter who or when.

Few short comments as we head into the playoff picks:

  • Entering the season, I posted a blog with my predictions on how the season would unfold.  For a little memory refresher, visit HERE.   I'd say I did a pretty good job, accurately predicting all 16 playoff teams.  In fact, I had the East Division and B.C. Division nailed perfectly (at least for playoffs).  My only real miss was how much I undervalued Everett this season.  I had them as the second wild card team....they ended up winning the U.S. Division.  Interesting though, I had Edmonton beating Brandon for the Eastern Conference Championship, instead they will meet in the opening round of the playoffs.
  • Throughout the season everyone talked about Brandon and Kelowna being the talk of the league...and sure enough they were.  The Wheat Kings and Rockets rolled through the regular season will relative ease and should be the heavy favorites.  Kelowna will not be pushed in the opening round but a possible second round match up with a much improved Victoria squad and then a Western Final match up with the team surviving the US Division route is not as easy one.  Brandon is going to have to survive Edmonton to start and, if they do, should get the easiest second round match up battling the Regina/Swift Current winner.  But then they would need to deal with the survivor of Calgary/Medicine Hat/Red Deer (sorry Kootenay fans, it's not happening for you).  Basically, no easy path for any team this year.
  • In keeping with the #BracketBuster theme, if you are looking for a team to really surprise you this year, take a look at Victoria.  The Royals are going to be a tough team to knock off.  Should they win their opening series, a possible match up with Kelowna would be the class of the second round series.  Victoria is not scared to tackle the favorite Rockets and have played them strong all season.  With the U.S. Division a bit weak in comparison to year's past, the Royals could surprise the Rockets and ride the momentum all the way to the WHL final.

Let's get onto the opening round picks for the 2014-2015 WHL Playoffs shall we....

EASTERN CONFERENCE

Brandon Wheat Kings vs. Edmonton Oil Kings

These teams have met in the playoffs the past few seasons with Oil being the stronger King over Wheat.  However, in those past series, Edmonton was the higher seed and the favored team.  Not the case this year.  Finally Brandon enters the playoffs as the favorites and the top overall seed in the league, winning the Scotty Munro Memorial Trophy on the last day of the season.  Last year, Edmonton laid claim to that trophy.  Wouldn't Brandon love to follow in the same steps as the Oil Kings last year?  This has the potential to be the best series in the opening round.  The Wheat Kings set records for goal scored and are one of the most explosive teams the WHL has seen in recent years.  The Oil Kings saw major turnover, in players and coaching staff, in the off season but still have put together a solid season, anchored by Pittsburgh Penguins draft pick Tristan Jarry between the pipes.  If Jarry can find his playoff mojo from last year, an upset could happen here.  This series will adopt the 2-3-2 playoff format due to the long travel distance between Edmonton and Brandon.  I think this format actually favors the Oil Kings.  If they can get the split in Brandon (Ed. Note: The Oil Kings did just win game 1 in Brandon tonight), they have the advantage of 3 games played in Edmonton where they can take a strangle hold (or even finish) the series on home ice.  But Brandon is the top overall seed for a reason and can win just as easy on the road as they have at home.  Get ready for a high-octane match up here folks...

#TwineTime pick: Brandon over Edmonton in 7 games

Calgary Hitmen vs. Kootenay Ice

A bit of history repeating once again.  We have ourselves another playoff rematch from a year ago.  One I think the Hitmen would like to forget.  Last season everyone was ready for an Oil Kings vs Hitmen Eastern final, but the Ice ended up pulling off the opening series upset and sending Calgary home way earlier than anyone expected.  Enter this year, Calgary once again is the heavily favored team.  The Hitmen looked destined for finishing second place in the Central division but late in the season found a second groove, took advantage of a slumping Medicine Hat Tigers team and pulled out another division championship.  The Hitmen will be fired up for this rematch and the opportunity to extract some revenge.  The Ice enter the playoffs feeling fortunate to hold off Edmonton and avoid Brandon in the opening round.  This is a better match up for them without a doubt.  I still think they will be unable to keep up with the offense Calgary will throw at them.  If Sam Reinhart can find the magic like he did last season and take advantage of arguably the weakest part of the Calgary game, goaltending, the Ice have a shot at the upset once again.  Interesting to note, these two teams played a home-and-home series to end the regular series, swept by Calgary which solidified this playoff pairing.

#TwineTime pick:  Calgary over Kootenay in 5 games

Medicine Hat Tigers vs. Red Deer Rebels

Oh what could have been for the Tigers.  On paper the Tigers are the better team and, honestly, probably should have won the Central Division this year.  But this late season collapse, coupled with the terrific run of rival Calgary, may play a bit of a mind game with these boys.  This series will be decided by Trevor Cox and Cole Sanford.  Both finishing in the Top 5 in points this season, if they can light the lamp early and often, Red Deer is in trouble.  If the Rebels can find a way to slow the pace and keep Cox and Sanford frustrated, they could get the upset.  The difference could also come down to home ice.  This is the final year for Medicine Hat arena, a storied and historic building among the hockey world.  The Tigers are not going to want to close the building down with an opening round playoff loss.

#TwineTime pick:  Medicine Hat over Red Deer in 6 games

Regina Pats vs. Swift Current Broncos

Well after talking about back-to-back Alberta provincial rivalry series, welcome to an all-Saskatchewan match up.  And what a series this will be.  These two teams DO NOT like one another.  I was lucky enough to be in Regina over the Christmas holidays and take in a game between these two clubs...there were more fights in the opening period than goals.  The Pats are a bit of an enigma this year.  They started the season on fire and have been locked into this playoff position basically from the start, nobody expected them to catch Brandon.  But, mid-way through the season it almost felt like Pats front office staff held a firing sale, dealing away many top players for draft picks and with the hope of building for the future.  Sure, this could work in the long run but what about this year?  Many fans saw this as the team cashing in on this year with the hope of building a championship calibre team in 2 to 3 years.  Can this team still find the muster to be relevant in this year's playoffs?  Speedy Creek enter the playoffs just barely holding off Moose Jaw to solidify their playoff spot.  The Broncos must be loving the new playoff format.  Under the old format, they would have drawn Brandon in the opening round.  Instead they have a more winnable series with their provincial rivals.  Swift Current did win the season series as well.  This one could go either way...but maybe call this a bit of a homer pick I suppose....

#TwineTime pick:  Regina over Swift Current in 7 games

WESTERN CONFERENCE

Kelowna Rockets vs. Tri-City Americans

Should we just sweep right through this preview?  Ok sure, the Rockets have looked more vulnerable the past month.  Yes, the Americans looked better at the end of the season in victories over Portand and Spokane but come on...let's be real here.  This is a David vs Goliath match up where David really has no chance.  If Tri-City can win one game this series I would consider that a success.  The Rockets will probably miss Josh Morrissey all series but I don't think they need him anyways here.  Expect at least 2 blowout victories for Kelowna, maybe a one-goal victory in Tri-City but overall, business as usual.  The Rockets will want to end this series early because their real playoffs begin in the second round.

#TwineTime pick:  Kelowna over Tri-City in 4 games

Everett Silvertips vs. Spokane Chiefs

Well Everett, you were the surprise of the season for me.  I knew you would be a playoff team but did not see that U.S. division championship coming your way.  Great job!  It's interesting to note that the higher seeded Silvertips are probably more in a playoff mindframe than the Chiefs.  Spokane has been sitting in the number one wild card spot for quite some time now.  They were never going to catch Seattle or Portland and seemed to be content with just holding off Tri-City.  Everett, on the other hand, was holding off Portland the final month of the season to win the division.  Each game was like a playoff game as both Everett and Portland were hoping to avoid Seattle and draw Spokane in the opening round.  Advantage Silvertips!  Similar to Kelowna above, the Silvertips could be challenged for a game or two but should comfortable advance.  The earlier the better though because look who awaits in round two...

#TwineTime pick:  Everett over Spokane in 5 games

Portland Winterhawks vs. Seattle T-Birds

This is the class pairing of the Western Conference opening round.  The Winterhawks are in their Drive for 5 year.  They are the 4-time defending Western Conference Champions, yet only have produced 1 WHL championship out of those appearances.  Many believe the best times in Portland are a thing of the past now.  WHL scoring leader Oliver Bjorkstrand may have something to say about that.  The past two months have been all about Oli.  There is not too much he hasn't done.  63 goals scored and 118 point in 59 games played is quite impressive.  But after Oli and the Winterhawks top line, what's left?  In the past few years, Portland produced a full offensive package, not as much this year.  And Seattle seems fully ready to end the streak.  The T-Birds won the season series, winning 7 of the 12 games played.  Ok, sure two of those wins were in a shootout and most of those games played were earlier in the season when Portland was struggling but still, mental advantage to Seattle.  I actually really like this Seattle team and think they could surprise many this year.  Does the Drive for 5 continue or will we see the end of the PDX era?

#TwineTime pick:  Seattle over Portland in 7 games

Victoria Royals vs. Prince George Cougars

Welcome back to the playoff Prince George.  And thank you for making me look oh so smart in predicting at the start of the season that you would be right here in this scenario.  This will be the Cougars first playoff series since 2011.  And it will be a short one unfortunately.  Similar to the Kelowna series, this one should be over early.  Victoria is just too fast, too strong, too explosive and too confident for the Cougars to keep up with.  The only hiccup for Victoria might be getting caught looking ahead to the powerhouse second round match up with Kelowna.  Prince George should be able to pull out a win at home but other than that, expect a quick and routine opening series win for the Royals.

#TwineTime pick:  Victoria over Prince George in 5 games

So there you have it.  I think we will see some highly competitive series in the Eastern Conference and some relative blowout routine wins for the favorites in the Western Conference.  At least for the opening round anyways.

Let me know your thoughts on here or on twitter.  Being born in Regina, I was raised on the WHL and have been a fan of this league since I was a little boy.  I love it and get right behind it every season.  I expect nothing short of outstanding playoff hockey action.  If you are in any of the cities hosting playoff games, I highly recommend you check out a game or two.  The price is perfect, the atmosphere is family friendly and the action on the ice is comparable, if not at most times way better, than what you will see on a regular night of NHL action.  For a complete run down of the playoff schedule, and to find out how to buy tickets, visit the WHL website HERE.

Enjoy the opening round action.  #TwineTime will be back with second round playoff predictions and thoughts on the opening series after they are all wrapped up.

Wednesday, 25 March 2015

Frozen Four Battle Heating Up
The NCAA Hockey season gets ready to crown a new champ


Ah #MarchMadness is in full swing.  The men's and women's basketball NCAA basketball tournaments are in the Sweet 16 stage and moving towards the Final Four.  But basketball isn't the only sport in Sweet 16 mode.  Hockey will be taking center ice attention this week as the often slippery, unpredictable and cold road to the #FrozenFour revs up.

For those unfamiliar with the NCAA hockey season, let me catch you up a bit.  NCAA Division I hockey is divided amongst 6 conferences.  Similar to other NCAA sports, teams compete against the conference rivals as well as other Division I schools throughout the season, including major tournaments throughout the year (i.e. Beanpot).  Come tournament time, each conference participates in a conference tournament (again, similar to basketball).  The 6 conference tournament champions automatically qualify for the 16 team field, with the remaining 10 spots going to at-large bids.

Traditional powerhouse teams have come from Michigan (9 titles), North Dakota and Denver (7) and Wisconsin (6).  Not too surprising when you look at these states and the amount of snow, ice and cold weather they have...plus the amount of NHL players they produce.  These are hockey hotbeds.  Interestingly enough though, notice a major hockey state missing from this list?  Yup, where is Minnesota?  The Golden Gophers of Minnesota have skated away with 5 NCAA titles, but their last title was in 2003.  Recently, in 2011, a new champion arose from the state with Minnesota-Duluth taking home the title.  This year could see yet another new Minnesota champion...read on for who that can be (in case you don't already know the #1 overall seed of course).

The past two seasons have seen new teams ice their competition and win a national championship.  Yale's win in 2013 was the first Ivy league title since Harvard in 1989.  And last season, Union College, a small school based out of Schenectady, New York surprised the entire hockey world when they beat heavily favored Minnesota in the championship game.

We will see a new champion this season though.  The Dutchmen of Union College did not qualify for the tournament this year and will be forced to watch the action from their couches rather than from the bench.  Interesting to note, this will be the 10th straight year we will not see a repeat champion, proving the Frozen Four is as difficult of a national championship to win as any other NCAA title.

Few comments on this year's field:

  • "Fighting Sioux" Fight Again - Let me start by saying yes I realize the "Fighting Sioux" name is no longer used at UND.  Under pressure from the NCAA, the school decided to drop the name but a new school name has not been revealed (expected sometime in 2015).  In absence of a name, I will continue to use the "Fighting Sioux" name with quotations.  If you have a problem with it, too bad for you!  Back to hockey...The University of North Dakota is a threat to win this title every year.  UND enters the tournament as the overall #2 seed and will be making their 13th straight appearance in the Frozen Four tournament.   UND shouldn't overlook their competition though.  Sure they will be playing in the friendly confines of Scheels Arena in Fargo but if they look too far ahead, a team like Quinnipiac or St. Cloud State could provide an upset.  Let's remember, it was only two seasons ago when Quinnipiac played for their first national championship.

  • Future NHL Star Adding Stock Value - With all the talk of Connor McDavid being the #1 pick in the upcoming NHL draft, projected #2 Jack Eichel is looking to add star value to his name.  The Boston University forward, a Hobey Baker finalist, has the chance to take home an NCAA title before the draft.  If he has a outstanding tournament, puts up the continued great numbers and leads the Terriers back to the promise land, he could turn the heads of some big team scouts.  In Eichel's first season with the Terriers, he has accumulated 24 goals and 42 assists for 66 points...in playing only 36 games!!  Sure McDavid's numbers look WAY stronger but the points per game ratio is a lot closer than most people realize.  Remember as well, playing in the OHL is VERY different from being a student athlete in the NCAA.  All eyes will be on Eichel as long as the Terriers are alive.

  • Who Is Minnesota State? - Don't worry if you didn't know Minnesota State existed, either did most people.  Ok, as is the norm with universities in the US, each state has a state school and a "State" school (ie: Oregon & Oregon State) so why would Minnesota be any different?  Except this time, the Mavericks are the #1 overall seed heading into the tournament.  No longer the forgotten cousin of past champions Minnesota and Minnesota-Duluth, Minnesota State is ready to become the favorite family member in Minnesota.  MSU enters with a 29-7-3 mark on the season and has been given the best draw possible to reach the Frozen Four.  Anything short of an appearance in Boston would be a HUGE shock and a disappointment for these boys.

  • Who could be this year's Union or Yale? - Ok, looking for that Cinderella story or #BracketBuster on the ice hey?  Well, I don't think we have a clear cut upset favorite this year.  I would like to say Nebraska-Omaha but they drew #1 Minnesota State, enter the tourney with a less than impressive 2 wins since February and I don't think they will even survive their first round opponent, Harvard.  So let's omit Omaha.  A true contender for the title and not in a #1 or #2 seed line could be Northeast Region #3 Minnesota.  Ok I get it is difficult to call the Golden Gophers a dark horse given their success year in and year out but this has not been a typical Gopher season.  They have struggled all season and barely squeezed into this tournament.  Sure they won the Big 10 but not like that is a top notch conference in hockey.  The problem for the Gophers is they drew in-state rival Minnesota-Duluth in the opening game.  As a #3 seed, I would have liked their chances against any other #2 seed in the tournament, but Duluth was the worst draw for them.  How about a non-hockey powerhouse to cheer for?  What about Providence?  The Friars have the #4 seed in the East, open against the most vulnerable #1 seed, Miami (OH), and are coming off a tough Elite 8 loss to eventual champion Union last year.  Also worth noting, they may be #4 but they are the home team with all games in the East regional being played in Providence.  The Friars are the true #BracketBuster this year.

Onto the picks:

Midwest Regional

First Round

#1 Minnesota State Mankato def. #4 RIT
#3 Harvard def. #2 Nebraska-Omaha

Second Round

#1 Minnesota State Mankato def. #3 Harvard

West Regional

First Round

#1 North Dakota def. #4 Quinnipiac
#2 Michigan Tech def. #3 St. Cloud State

Second Round

#1 North Dakota def. #2 Michigan Tech

Northeast Regional

First Round

#1 Boston University def. #4 Yale
#3 Minnesota def. #2 Minnesota-Duluth

Second Round

#1 Boston University over #3 Minnesota

East Regional

First Round

#4 Providence over #1 Miami (OH)
#2 Denver over #3 Boston College

Second Round

#4 Providence over #2 Denver

Frozen Four Semifinals

MW #1 Minnesota State Mankato def. E #4 Providence
W #1 North Dakota def. NE #1 Boston University

FROZEN FOUR CHAMPIONSHIP

W #1 North Dakota def. MW #1 Minnesota State Mankato - The Fightin' Sioux will reign supreme over the hockey land once again.  UND made the Frozen Four last year as a #4 seed and, with most of this team returning this season, why shouldn't we expect them to go even further.  The draw to the Frozen Four is relatively easy, especially factoring in playing in Fargo.  I think the only thing stopping UND from taking home the title is not the team they could meet in the final but rather the team they play in the semi.  Boston University or Minnesota (even perhaps Minnesota-Duluth) could pose the bigger threat.  The icy path would be even more difficult if Boston University does make it to the Frozen Four as Boston's TD Garden is the host site this year.  UND could go from home state favorites to public enemy #1 in a matter of weeks.  The problem I see though is the Northeast region is so stacked this year, I am not sure a battle tested survivor will be able to keep up with a more rested, less exhausted North Dakota team coming out of the West regional.  UND has not won a national championship since 2000 and has not appeared in the final since 2005.  I think all that changes this season and the "Fighting Sioux" skate back home to Grand Forks with title #8.

Enjoy the action on the ice....



Thursday, 19 March 2015

The Wildcats Are Invading Indianapolis...3 Times?
#MarchMadness will be Wildcat Territory

Ah my favorite sporting event of the year has technically already begun: It's March Madness Time Babbbyyy!!!

How can anyone who calls themselves a sports fan not love this time of the year?  A sporting event with 68 teams narrowing its way down to a Final Four clash to finally crown their national champion.  Can the favorites survive?  Who will be the Cinderella story this year?  What is the deal with these 5-12 matchups?  Will we see a double digit seed make the Sweet 16? The Elite Eight?  The Final Four?  And what the hell is UCLA even doing here? 

The drama alone surrounding the next month is almost too much to handle.  And I love every second of it....

Here are few of my quick thoughts on the bracket before I unveil my picks to the world:

  • The Wildcats are coming!!  2015 is the year of the Wildcat people.  Look at all the Wildcat teams in this tournament: Kentucky, Arizona, Villanova, Davidson.  All of these teams actually have a great shot at going far in the tournament too.  Sure Davidson might look out of place but opening with Iowa is a good match up for them and a potential Gonzaga, SMU/Iowa State path to the Elite 8 is not impossible for them.  Image if we had 4 Wildcat teams in Indianapolis?  Ok, I might be far reaching here but *spoiler alert* I do project three going all the way and an all-Wildcat championship final.  Which Wildcat will reign supreme though?  Read on....

  • Poor Murray State? Not so fast!  Yes, as a lover of the underdog story I feel bad for the Racers not being invited into the tournament.  I feel even more upset that other teams (looking at you UCLA) are playing and they aren't.  However, let's not send Murray State a dozen roses and apologies quite yet.  They dominated their weak conference all season so, one would expect, they should be here.  Alas, drama unfolded in the conference tournament and they were eliminated.  Look at their schedule.  Not like the Ohio Valley is loaded with contenders.  And ok, they only lost 5 games but look who they lost to: Houston, Xavier, Portland, Valpo and Belmont in the OVC Championship.  Three of those teams made the tournament, true, but they lost to all of them.  And these were the only tournament playing teams they faced.  If you want to be considered at-large, play an at-large worthy non-schedule.  Or, do what other mid-majors have done, jump ship to a more competitive conference.  I know re-alignment and conference jumping sucks but it is the world we live in now and if you want to be considered a viable tourney team (see Temple), play a stronger schedule.  Sorry Racers but you couldn't take care of business at home so NIT you deserve.

  • UCL-Ohhhh why are you here?  Because you lost by 6 points to Arizona in the PAC-12 semi?  Come on.  I said Murray State played a weak schedule, well UCLA didn't play that much stronger a schedule really.  The PAC-12 was not a huge dominant conference.  Arizona sure, Utah at times and Oregon came on strong at the end of the season to play into the tournament...but the Bruins lost to all those teams.  Plus lost to Oregon State, Cal and Colorado.  Remember the blowout vs. Kentucky?  Yup I can see why bubble busted teams are not happy.  Plus...UCLA gets a spot as an 11 seed?  11?  Really?  The committee thought their resume was more impressive than play-in teams Ole Miss, BYU, Boise St and Dayton?  This was a berth provided on basis of school name alone it appears.  Historical impact perhaps?  Regardless, let's all join together and hope SMU destroys the Bruins in the second round.  Although, the way March Madness goes, watch UCLA end up in the Sweet 16.

  • UK is OK all the way.  Kentucky is undefeated.  Kentucky is playing better basketball than anyone else in the country.  Kentucky should easily win this entire thing.  And the selection committee appears happy to see that be the end result on April 6.  They sure handed UK a Final Four berth on a silver platter.  Let's be honest, no team in the Midwest should...SHOULD...be trouble for Kentucky.  Their path to the Elite 8 is basically a given.  Once they make it to Cleveland, who can stop them?  The survivor of Kansas/Notre Dame/Butler/Wichita State?  Everyone is skeptical on Kansas (myself included).  I haven't been convinced on Notre Dame all season and don't see them making the Elite 8.  Butler could struggle with Texas and/or Notre Dame.  Wichita State could be the only team to challenge Kentucky, IF...IF they even survive Indiana and Kansas to make to Cleveland.  Can we just not bother giving the Midwest a lot of television time?  It seems pointless as all teams are really just fighting to see who will be Kentucky's next victim.

  • Weep Virginia!  Oh Cavs fans, I feel for you.  All season it appeared Virginia would nab a #1 seed in the tournament.  Things went south fast.  Loss to Louisville to end the season and the ACC tournament loss to North Carolina took an easier path to Indy away from you in the span on weeks.  Sure they avoided Kentucky, that was a plus.  But being handed Villanova is no gift.  On top of that, they were put in a pod where their third round opponent could be Tom Izzo and Michigan State.  The Spartans are the worst team for Virginia to face early.  Izzo and company have not looked like a dominant team this season but, as they showed in the B1G tournament, when they get in tourney mode watch out.  Virginia could very easily be going home this weekend...forget about even the potential matchup with Villanova.   

  • #BracketBusters.  Ok looking for a few bracket buster teams? To qualify as a bracket buster, you need to be a double digit seed I think.  Sure 8/9 seeds knock off 1 and 7 knock off a 2 and those wreak brackets but I mean a real "oh damn...shit....i'm f*cked now" kind of upset here.  A quick short list of teams that could wreak havoc on your bracket if you aren't careful: S.F. Austin, Eastern Washington, Valparaiso, Buffalo and Georgia State.  All of these teams have winnable opening round games.  If they can pull the trigger on opening day, the sky is the limit and any of them are capable of making at Sweet 16 run.  In fact *spoiler alert* I actually have one of these teams in my Sweet 16.  Think you can guess which one? 
Onto my picks....

MIDWEST

Second Round

(1) Kentucky over (16) Hampton
(8) Cincinnati over (9) Purdue
(5) West Virginia over (12) Buffalo
(13) Valparaiso over (4) Maryland
(6) Butler over (11) Texas
(3) Notre Dame over (14) Northeastern
(7) Wichita State over (10) Indiana
(2) Kansas over (15) New Mexico State

Third Round

(1) Kentucky over (8) Cincinnati
(5) West Virginia over (13) Valparaiso
(3) Notre Dame over (6) Butler
(7) Wichita State over (2) Kansas

Sweet 16

(1) Kentucky over (5) West Virginia
(7) Wichita State over (3) Notre Dame

Elite 8

(1) Kentucky over (7) Wichita State

WEST

Second Round

(1) Wisconsin over (16) Coastal Carolina
(8) Oregon over (9) Oklahoma State
(5) Arkansas over (12) Wofford
(4) North Carolina over (13) Harvard
(11) Ole Miss over (6) Xavier
(3) Baylor over (14) Georgia State
(7) VCU over (10) Ohio State
(2) Arizona over (15) Texas Southern

Third Round

(1) Wisconsin over (8) Oregon
(4) North Carolina over (5) Arkansas
(3) Baylor over (11) Ole Miss
(2) Arizona over (7) VCU

Sweet 16

(1) Wisconsin over (4) North Carolina
(2) Arizona over (3) Baylor

Elite 8

(2) Arizona over (1) Wisconsin

EAST

Second Round

(1) Villanova over (16) Lafayette
(8) NC State over (9) LSU
(5) Northern Iowa over (12) Wyoming
(4) Louisville over (13) UC Irvine
(6) Providence over (11) Dayton
(3) Oklahoma over (14) Albany
(7) Michigan State over (10) Georgia
(2) Virginia over (15) Belmont

Third Round

(1) Villanova over (8) NC State
(5) Northern Iowa over (4) Louisville
(6) Providence over (3) Oklahoma
(2) Virginia over (7) Michigan State

Sweet 16

(1) Villanova over (5) Northern Iowa
(2) Virginia over (6) Providence

Elite 8

(1) Villanova over (2) Virginia

SOUTH

Second Round

(1) Duke over (16) Robert Morris
(8) San Diego State over (9) St. John's
(12) S.F. Austin over (5) Utah
(13) Eastern Washington over (4) Georgetown
(6) SMU over (11) UCLA
(3) Iowa State over (14) UAB
(10) Davidson over (7) Iowa
(2) Gonzaga over (15) North Dakota State

Third Round

(1) Duke over (8) San Diego State
(12) S.F. Austin over (13) Eastern Washington
(3) Iowa State over (6) SMU
(2) Gonzaga over (10) Davidson

Sweet 16

(1) Duke over (12) S.F. Austin
(3) Iowa State over (2) Gonzaga

Elite 8

(3) Iowa State over (1) Duke

FINAL FOUR

(1) Kentucky over (2) Arizona
(1) Villanova over (3) Iowa State

2015 MEN'S NCAA NATIONAL CHAMPIONSHIP: (1) Kentucky over (1) Villanova 
Wildcats vs Wildcats.  A championship match up we can all get behind actually.  Kentucky should steam roll their way to the Final Four but will receive some trouble with Arizona in the national semi.  I actually almost pulled the trigger on the upset and picked Arizona to play in the championship but I think Kentucky is just too strong and, not being challenged, could work for them.  This team has the swagger and confidence.  But don't count out 'Nova.  I don't think these Wildcats are getting enough love from everyone.  This is a VERY good team.  I honestly feel 'Zona and 'Nova are the only teams that could possibly derail a perfect season for UK.  I expect, if I am correct with this final prediction, to see a close championship match up.

So there you have it.  My #MarchMadness thoughts and predictions.  I should receive bonus objectivity media points for not going with the homer pick and choosing Oregon to run the table.  While these are my #TwineTime picks, don't think the fan in me won't be sitting on the sidelines running my #GoDucks cheers the entire time.

Feel free to share your thoughts with me on here or on twitter.  I always enjoy a good sports debate.

Enjoy the madness everyone....

Friday, 13 March 2015

Sekai ga kite iru / 世界が来ている
The World is Coming to Japan
The pinnacle of the 2015 women's curling season is a mere hours away from hitting the ice.  The 2015 Women's World Curling Championships are set to kick off in Sapporo, Japan Saturday morning (or last Friday night for us back in Canuck land).  The twelve teams arriving in Japan have been working for this moment all year, the chance to throw their country colors on their back and compete to be named World Champion!

So how familiar are you with Sapporo?  Before we get into the event itself, I thought I would share a few timbits (yup still have the Brier on the brain) at you to get you familiar with our hosts for the week.  Did you know (DYK):

  • Sapporo was the 1st Asian city to host an Olympic Games, the 1972 Winter Olympics, beating out Banff?
  • In early February, over 2 MILLION tourists fall into the city for the annual Snow Festival, known as Sapporo Yuki-matsuri?  This festival has been around since 1950.
  • The Sapporo Dome hosted 3 matches during the 2002 FIFA World Cup?
  • Sapporo cuisine is known throughout the world?  Miso ramen, jingisukan (BBQ lamb), sea urchin and Haskup (local variety of edible honeysuckle) are among the most popular dishes.

Ok, enough with the background on the city, let's get to the background on the competition on the ice.  The twelve nations qualified for the championship have a variety of different ways to determine their representative.  Some have a national championship (Canada, Switzerland), some see their national curling associations choose who they think will be the best representative (Germany, Sweden) while some have a crazy, almost impossible to understand points system (USA).  Regardless of how they got there, we have our line-up.

Quick note on qualification.  The standard qualification happens: Host Country (Japan), North America (Canada, USA) and 1 designated Asian nation (China, determined from the Pacific-Asia Championship).  Worth noting, the lowest placed team from North America the previous year is, technically, supposed to play a challenge series against teams from the America's zone but, at least in women's play, this is yet to happen.  Enter the Europeans.  Since Europe has many of the top teams in the world, they receive 8 qualification spots.  The top 7 are reserved based on the standings of the most recent European Championship.  The final spot goes to the winner of a challenger round between the 8th place team in the A division (Championship division) and the B division champion.  This year, the challenge saw Norway (B) defeat Estonia (A) in two of three games.  Ok, got all that?

The format for the world championship is very standard and one any sports fan should be familiar with.  All twelve teams compete in a round robin format, playing their 11 fellow competitors.  The top 4 teams (after tiebreakers if needed of course) advance to the page playoff where 1vs2 play (winner advancing to the championship final, loser dropping into the semifinal) and 3vs4 play (winner advancing to semifinal, loser dropping into the bronze medal game).

Let's get to the fun now....THE FIELD!!

The Favorites

Team Canada (J. Jones) - Is anyone expecting this team to come home with a medal other than gold?  I doubt it.  These ladies have been on fire...more on fire than lead Dawn McEwen's hair.  This team enters off last year's dominant run at the 2014 Winter Olympics.  They wiped up their competition in Manitoba playdowns, were challenged at times at the Scotties but still came out looking like the best team in the world.  They are OVERWHELMING favorites.  But let's not get out the carving tools for the trophy yet.  Jennifer Jones does not have the best track record at world championships.  4 times she has put the maple leaf on her back but she has only 1 world championship to her credit (2008, Vernon).  In fact, she has only come away with a medal twice (2008 Gold, 2010 Bronze, Swift Current).  Another interesting fact, notice both those podium finishes happened in Canada.  You aren't in Canada anymore Ms. Jones!   Her previous world appearances were less than successful: 2005 Paisley, Scotland where she was drubbed in the 3vs4 game by Norway's Dordi Norby (12-5) and 2009 Gangneung, South Korea, again losing the 3vs4 game to Sweden's Anette Norberg.  Jones can be defeated and has been.  Can she keep the ship sailing smooth or will the demons of international world championship hosts cities come back to haunt her?  The biggest test for this team will be vice Kaitlyn Lawes.  This will be her first world championship appearance (minus juniors of course).  How will she handle the pressure?  Yes she will have the Olympic experience to draw on but will that be enough to settle the nerves?  Last Canadian to win the World Championship: Jennifer Jones in 2008.  That is a long drought for a nation considered the favorite every year regardless of the team we send.  Did Jones start a curve for Team Canada with her 2008 victory?  It appears that way....so only she can reverse it right?

Watch Our For

Team Scotland (E. Muirhead) - Can you believe this will be Eve's sixth world championship appearance?  6!!  And she is only 24 years old.  She has more appearances than the favorite, Jennifer Jones.  She also has the same amount of world championships under her belt: 1 (2013, Liga Latvia).  Her world championship was only 2 years ago, still very fresh.  Can you also believe she has been in 2 Winter Olympics (2010, 2014)?  Sochi was a huge success with her team picking up the bronze medal.  This team is not to be ignored.  Eve has never entered an event being the favorite but yet always seems to be there at the end of the week.  If any team can take advantage of any slip-up by the favorites, it is Team Scotland!  Interestingly enough, who do they get in the second game?  Team Canada!

Team Sweden (M. Sigfridsson) - Always a bride's maid never a bride.  The perfect way to sum up the curling career of skip Margaretha Sigfridsson.  4 world championship appearances, 4 silver medals.  1 Olympic appearance, 1 silver medal.  Heck, 1 junior world championship, 1 silver medal.  Maybe she is allergic to gold and we don't know it?  You cannot help, as a fan of sport in general, to feel for her though.  To get oh so close so many times and come up short time and time again has to be difficult.  Yet, here she is competing again seeking her first world championship.  I would say this team is the sentimental favorite.  If your home nation cannot win gold, cheer for Team Sweden.  These ladies deserve a good result.  They have put together a good season, sitting #10 in the tour rankings.  Yes, other teams here are ranked above them but when it comes to the experience factor, nobody can rival them (other than Canada).  I would fully expect to see this team on the podium....but which color will it be this time?

Dark Horse

Team Switzerland (A. Patz) - Yes Switzerland is the defending champion by nation.  Yes they have won 2 of the past 3 world championships.  But both of those championship teams are different than the 2015 Swiss Champ.  Switzerland is...no has...become the curling hotbed for women's curling internationally.  They have the results to back it up.  Skip Alina Patz is considered by many to be the 3rd best skip in the country, yet here she is making her first world championship appearance.  This team is having a breakout season, currently ranked #8 in the world.  You may not be familiar with them but you will be.  This team has played all the top teams and has produced some big victories.  Patz herself has learned from the best, Mirjam Ott.  She was an alternate on Ott's world championship team in 2012 and at the 2014 Winter Olympics.  She is also familiar with the world stage on her own, having won gold at the 2011 World Mixed Doubles Curling Championship.  This team could catch a few off guard, especially the favorites, and if they do, watch out.  A little history repeating could happen in a week's time.  While everyone expects the Red and White to fly overhead as champions, it may just be the white cross not the red maple leaf.

The Field

Team Russia (A. Sidorova) - Ok so I may be doing an injustice here listing Sidorova's team under the field category.  They are a threat to win this entire event as well.  Sidorova won bronze at last year's world championship in St. John, a first for Russian women.  She is coming off a Winter Universaide gold medal in Spain (her repeat after claiming gold in 2013 as well).  Similar resume to Eve Muirhead actually.  24 years old, 2 Olympic Games (2010, 2014), 5 previous world championship appearances.  In fact, this will be her 6th straight appearance.  She has dominated Russian curling for the past few years and is the cream of the crop.  The real question is can this team put it all together and win another medal.  They struggled on home ice in Sochi and at times look like world championship contenders but then look like pretenders.  Consistency will be the key to their success.  If Sidorova herself can curl light's out and find the confidence in her style of game calling, we could see Russia return to the podium.

Team China (L. Sijia) - I will admit I do not know much about this team.  Liu was at the world championships last year, finishing with a respectable 6-5 record.  She also used to play with former world champion Wang Bingyu.  Since Wang retired from the sport however, Chinese curling has really dropped off.  It's great to see them return for their second appearance and perhaps experience from last year will help them out.  They should also have some fan support as many from China may travel to Japan to cheer them on.

Team Denmark (L.Nielson) -  Lene will be making her 6th world championship appearance in Japan and 4th as a skip.  She is yet to land with a winner record however.  The game is there to compete but the play calling and strategy sometimes gets away from her.  She represented Denmark at the 2014 Winter Olympics (she was even the flag bearer!) but again came away with a listless 4-5 record.  Playoff threat?  Probably not.  Threat to spoil the records of some of the favorites?  Absolutely!!

Team Finland (S. Puustinen) - Puustinen has single handedly helped get Finland on the women's curling world stage.  For many years Finland sat in the B division in Europe, in limbo every year.  Ok sometimes Finland would win B and qualify for the A division, only to be relegated down the following year.  Puustinen has been on a mission the past few years.  In 2013, the team won the B division and earned promotion.  In 2014, the team had a breakthrough European Championship.  They finished 5-4, a winning record, and their 6th place finish qualified for them for this event.  Are their expectations high?  No, probably not.  But given where Finland was only 2 years ago, this is a great accomplishment.

Team Germany (D. Driendl) - Enter team controversy.  Ok, not with this team itself but with them representing Team Germany.  Driendl is not the current German Champion.  That honour goes to past World Champion Andrea Schopp.  The German Curling Federation decided to not send Schopp to this event, instead selecting Driendl.  This has caused a huge uproar within German curling, and honestly around the curling world.  This event is aimed to be sending the best from each nation and nobody could argue with Schopp being considered the best in German history.  Alas, here we are however.  Was Schopp going to win the event?  No, probably not.  Will Deiendl though?  No.  All the best to them of course but you still feel like this political move leaves a very sour taste in the mouth of the sport.

Team Japan (A. Ogasawara) - The Home Nation!  Regardless of qualifying as hosts, I think this team would have been here regardless who hosted the championship.  What a story for skip Ogasawara.  The 36yo mother of one once retired from the sport following the 2006 Winter Olympics.  She returned in 2011 to make another Olympic run, successfully winning the Olympic Qualification Event and making Sochi.  She has been to 3 Winter Olympics (2002, 2006, 2014).  Ogasawara was also the flag bearer for Japan in 2014.  In a sport where we are starting to see the youth movement take over, it is great to see an athlete still competing consistently and competitively in her late 30's.  Don't undersell their potential here either.  They are currently ranked #19 on the world tour and this is not only their home country but their home city!  They will have HUGE fan support.  Expect a good result from them this week.

Team Norway (K. Skaslien) -  Skaslien returns for her 5th world championship appearance.  Can you believe that?  I would be confident in assuming asking curling fans to name a female Norway curler and people would struggle to name anyone other than the great Dordi Norby.  But here is Skaslien again.  She fought her way out of B Division at the European Championships and upset Estonia (I never thought I would write Norway upset Estonia in curling) in the world challenge round to make it here.  I would not be expecting big results from this team however.  If they can pull off a win or two, I would consider that a success.

Team United States (A. Sormunen) - Another interesting qualification process here.  Team Sormunen qualified based on points earned during USA Curling events.  This team has reached the podium in 5 USA National Championships, with their best result being silver medals in 2010 and 2013.  Are they the best team in the US?  Again, probably not.  But hey, they cannot be blamed for a system that provided them with this opportunity.  They are ranked #23 in the world right now and have had some success on the world tour this year.  This will be their biggest event though and the nerves could wreck havoc on their chances.  They can pull off a few wins but I do not expect to see them near the top of the table by end week.

Page Playoff

1 vs 2: Team Canada (Jones) over Team Sweden (Sigfridsson)
3 vs 4: Team Scotland (Muirhead) over Team Russia (Sidorova)

Semifinal:  Team Sweden (Sigfidsson) over Team Scotland (Muirhead)

Bronze Medal:  Team Scotland (Muirhead) over Team Russia (Sidorova)

WOMEN'S WORLD CHAMPIONSHIP FINAL:  Team Sweden (Sigfridsson) over Team Canada (Jones) - Going with a bit of an upset here.  I think this is the final everyone would like to see though.  This will be the 2014 Sochi gold medal rematch.  These are the two best overall teams in the field.  I really think Sweden is due though to get over the bridesmaid hump eventually and this is the perfect opportunity.  Jones will be the favorite and, probably, will only have at most 1 loss entering this final.  However, Sigfridsson is a team that can go shot for shot, player vs player with the Jones foursome.  As much as I want to see Canada finally return to the top of the podium, I think Sweden may just find the luck they need to win that elusive gold!

Agree with me?  Disagree with me?  Feel I am completely crazy or totally think I hit the bullseye?  Either way, feel free to share your thoughts with me.  As I learned at the Brier, any coverage of the sport is positive coverage.  I always am interested in hearing from other fans.

Enjoy Sapporo everyone....and best of luck to all the teams competing!!

  


Thursday, 5 March 2015

Red Marker Roll Up Time
#Brier midterm grades

#TwineTime has arrived at the 2015 Tim Hortons Brier!!  After missing the first few days, catching up with results on TSN and online and injecting numerous "sad to be missing this live" comments on twitter to those who have been here, I am FINALLY here!  What an experience.  Being a part of the media team offers some behind the scenes viewings.  Just walking through the catacombs of the Saddledown to find the media room, you walk by some of the biggest names in curling: Reid Carruthers, Adam Casey, Kirk Muyers, Kevin Koe...I was fanstruck when I first arrived at last night's draw.  The fan in me got distracted at first but the professional part of me took over quickly so luckily I did not make a fool out of myself.  I will save that for later in the Patch I am told!



Well well well...what a Brier we have seen so far.  Everyone knew going into this year's showcase event we would be in for a treat.  Did we expect to see anything this close though?  With the conclusion of Thursday's opening draw, we have little to no answers in regards to playoff positions.  We have 3 teams still with a shot at 1st (NO, NL, SK).  We have 8 teams still alive for playoff spots.  The only thing decided is, unfortunately, the team being relegated.  With Jamie Koe's tough loss to BC this morning, #PolarPower will have to take the long way back into the Brier field in Ottawa next year.

Of course, I wouldn't be deserving of this media badge without being objective of the action on the ice.  I started the midterm grades with the Scotties and, in efforts to remain gender neutral, I will do the same for the Brier.  I got out Big Red and the grading criteria...here we go!!

A

Northern Ontario (Jacobs) - Ok so they suffered their first loss right as I am writing this but still.  This team has been operating on full cylinders all event.  Yes, there were some uncharacteristic errors in the loss to NF but they rebounded when they needed to and made Gushue draw for the win in the 10th.  Champions stumble at times but these champions only stumble for a few ends, not for a few games.  That is what makes them so formidable and hard to bet against.  Right now, they are the class of the field.  They have a HUGE game tonight (Thurs) vs Team Canada though.

Newfoundland and Labrador (Gushue) - The #TwineTime pick to win this entire event is looking right on track.  Yes, they have 2 losses.  But they just knocked off previously undefeated Northern Ontario and, should they win out, they can lock down 1st place.  This team is looking very comfortable right now and seem to be ready to step up to the top of the podium.  It won't be easy of course but when you have Goo throwing highlight of the night shots, should any of us really doubt the possibility of the Rock welcoming home a champion on Monday still?

B

Team Canada (Morris/Simmons) - Ask me a few days ago what grade I would give the defending champs and this would have been a solid C.  Cue the line up change and BOOM!  This team is rolling now.  All credit to John Morris for recognizing things were not working the way the team wanted and pulling himself from the skip position, moving to vice and letting Pat Simmons take over control of the house.  Since that move (which was highly scrutinized), the team has not lost.  They sit 7-3 after the win over Quebec this morning and look locked into, at least, a tiebreaker.  Not bad for a team many people (myself included) questioned heading into the event.  The way this team is curling right now, a repeat title is not out of the question.  Remember Morris lost last year's final...I am sure he wants a bit of redemption and another title.  His tough but correct call for a line up shift shows his dedication to winning with these guys.  Watch out this weekend....

Team Saskatchewan (Laycock) - Has any team been flying unmentioned and under the radar more this event than #TeamGreen?  With perennial top contenders Jacobs, Gushue, K. Koe, Morris receiving much of the spotlight, Laycock and company are rolling right along.  Sitting at 5-3 going into Thursday action, they are right in the playoff  hunt.  Upcoming games against AB and ON will test where this team is but, even a split today, one has to like their playoff chances.  The schedule favors their odds.  Big props to vice Kirk Muyers as well.  Curling 89% so far (T3), Kirk has quietly been putting together high quality shot after shot to help his team out.  He may be the wildcard to this team's success for the rest of the week.  If Kirk continues to excel, the boys in Green should find themselves playing this weekend.

The Field - Overall, let's give credit to all the teams playing this week.  I know this may come across as a bit fence sitting but I'm Austrian/Russian not Swiss so get that thought out of your head right now!!!  Look at the stats.  Look at the standings.  The games have, for the most part, been very competitive and close.  Fans of the sports should be embracing this field and enjoying the event.  The experienced teams are in a dog fight for playoffs.  The rookie teams (ON, MB, PEI) entered with many wondering how they would perform and I would rate them all very high.  Sure a few bad games, bad breaks here and there, but that comes with experience.  I expect to see all 3 of these teams back in future Briers.  When have we had a Brier where at the mid-way point of Thursday we had 8 teams still jockeying for playoffs?  Each game in each draw on each sheet is a toss up almost.  And that is what the sport really needs!  Enjoy this competitive field and appreciate the hard work of all these athletes.

C

Team Alberta (K. Koe) - Now that I have been polite and nice, we also need to be honest.  Alberta has been a bit of a disappointment so far.  Playing at home, with crowd support, Kevin Koe and team just have not looked like their champion selfs we know and expect from these guys.  I am not counting them out yet but sitting at 4-4 with games coming up against SK and MB should have the hometown fans a bit concerned.  This team really cannot afford another loss.  Can they go on a roll and win out?  Of course!  Will they?  I don't know.  Yes Kevin started the event feeling under the weather and that hurt them for sure.  It's odd because when you look at the stats, all the players are at or near the top.  The team itself leads the standings too at 90%.  Just the results aren't matching.  Let's call this grade a temporary C with full expectations to improve over the next 24hours.  Unfortunately with grading, one can only go on the results so far though and not on future expectations.

D

The Crowds - Come on Calgary!  Come on curling fans!  Where are you?  This is the most competitive, dynamic Brier field we possibly have ever seen.  Why are these stands not packed?  Sure Tuesday night's game between Alberta and Team Canada was full but that is expected with two Calgary teams battling.  What about the rest of the draws?  These guys are laying it all out there for the fans and love of the sport, they deserve better attendance numbers.  I am glad to hear TSN is reporting a 33% increase in viewership mind you, especially with the widely popular showing of two games per draw across the network stations.  But that cannot be a direct cause of the lower attendance numbers can it?  The weather in Calgary has been nice so that can't be keeping people away.  In talking with a few people yesterday upon arriving, perhaps the organizing committee missed the mark on ticket prices.  I have heard a few comments that the cost per draw may be a bit steep.  If so, this might be something to look into for the future.  Increased TV coverage and online coverage help grow the game but could they impact the in-person audience too?  Regardless, I know I could be watching at home as well but the experience of being here, in person, enjoying the action is unbeatable.  Hearing the players communicating, seeing the expressions on their faces with good and bad shots and getting the live look-in at 4 sheets at once cannot be beat by sitting at home on my couch in my boxers or at my computer.  Yes, putting on pants sucks....but come on, this field is worth pants!!  Get out here people......

F

#KneeGate - The tap heard around the world!  Two Ontario teams battling it out on the ice.  The experienced Olympic Champs vs the up and comer rookie team.  This was already primed to be a great battle.  And then it all went south with one tap.  We will never know exactly what words were exchanged between the players, whether good or bad.  Each team has their side of the story.  Do we all agree kneeling on the ice for an extended period of time is detrimental to the pebble? Yes!  Do we agree many players do it? Yes!  Do players know better? Of course.  Is taping the foot or leg of the player who just threw a stone the appropriate response? Probably not.  This was a scenario where nobody won and, overall, the sport lost.  Curling is often referred to as one sport where sportsmanship and respect between athletes reigns supreme.  This was a case where that did not happen.  While I believe with the facebook posting from Team Jacobs saying they did not mean the tap in a malicious way, the end result was still not a positive.  Let's hope this kind of negative attention does not find its way in the sport very often.  Luckily for us, we have also seen way more positive examples of sportsmanship this week that will hopefully override this story and make #KneeGate a small moment in time forgotten in the future.

There you have it curling fans, midterm grades have been reported.  Some received better than others.  But overall, can we just grade this entire Brier at an A already?  Nobody should be walking away from this event feeling disappointed in the action or the lineup.  Enjoy the rest of the week and, if you are around Calgary, join us at the Saddledome and take in the action live.  We are due for an exciting playoff weekend!