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Wednesday, 20 January 2016

#BetweenTheSheets: Playdowns Season Arrives
Time to crown provincial/territorial Scotties & Tankard champions


Can you believe we have reached the playdown championship time of the curling year already?  It seems like not to so long ago we were celebrating the new curling season in Paradise, NL at the Tour Challenge.  The season really has flown by.  But as the calendar year turns over, the goals of curling for money and winning big on tour are put to the wayside as teams pursue the ultimate dream: a provincial or territorial championship.

The Scotties Tournament of Hearts begins exactly one month from today (Feb. 20-28) at Revolution Place in Grande Prairie, Alberta.  The Tim Hortons Brier starts two weeks later (March 5 – 13) at TD Place Arena in Ottawa, Ontario.  The #RoadtoGP and #RoadToOttawa are underway as we speak.  This week’s blog post will preview the provincial championships taking place, crowning new Canadian junior champions...and discuss curling in Phoenix, Arizona?

Before we do so, let’s take a quick look at the #PowerRankings heading into championship week.  With the TSN Pinty’s All-Star Skins Game and Continental Cup grabbing most of the headlines, coupled with many teams taking the first few weeks off to prepare for provincial championships, we see only some small changes to the rankings based on early 2016 results.

MEN

(1) Brad Gushue (LW: 1)
(2) Kevin Koe (2)
(3) John Epping (5)
(4) BradJacobs (HM)
(5) Mike McEwen (4)

Hon. Mention:  Team Edin, Team Carruthers, Team Thomas

WOMEN

(1) Rachel Homan (LW: 1)
(2) Jennifer Jones (4)
(3) Val Sweeting (5)
(4) SilvanaTirinzoni (HM)
(5) Anna Sidorova (3)

Hon. Mention:  Team Muirhead, Team McCarville, Team Paetz, Team Sigfridsson
  • Team Jacobs rejoins the Top 5 after his repeat victory at the TSN Pinty’s All-Star Skins Game in Banff, AB.  Yes, I realize the skins is a bit different and not an official event on tour; however, he did beat McEwen (SF) and Gushue (F) to claim the title and played some outstanding curling along the way.  They collected their first W of the season...these facts cannot be ignored.
  • Similar to Jacobs, Sweeting jumps two spot in the rankings due to making the final in Banff before losing to Jones.  She beat Homan in the SF, something teams have struggled to do this season.  Again, it was only the skins but at this point of the season all victories provide great motivation and momentum for teams when they need it the most.
  • Team Epping and Team McCarville celebrated huge victories in Blaine, MN to start the 2016 year at the US Open Cup of Curling.  For Epping, it is still hard to move above Gushue and Koe but his win does plant him in the conversation for one of the top teams on tour this season.  For McCarville: Welcome to the power rankings!  It is hard to ignore the fact this team has won their past 4 events.  This team is firing on all cylinders heading into the Northern Ontario Scotties, taking place this week.  More on that below though.  Worth noting, #TwineTime accurately predicted both of these championship victories.
  • Speaking of the Tour Challenge earlier, women’s champion Silvana Tirinzoni is on a run of her own.  This team is coming off back-to-back tour victories in Bern, SUI (International Bernese Ladies Cup) and Glasgow, SCO (Glynhill Ladies International).  Interesting to note, both championship finals came at the expense of Team Sigfridsson.  While Tirinzoni climbs back into the Top 5, recognition also provided to Team Sigfridsson for their outstanding results in 2016.  In Bern, Sidorova eliminated Muirhead in the QF only to be beaten in the SF by Sigfridsson.  In Glasgow, Sidorova once again would come up short in the SF losing to eventual champion Tirinzoni.  The top European women’s teams are really starting to peak at the right time.

There are so many big events going on this weekend, let’s jump right into #TourLifePredictions.  We have a Canadian championship on the line.  We will crown new (or perhaps reigning) Scotties champions in a few provinces.  A few men’s teams will lock up their spot in the Brier as well.  And we cannot forget about the new #wct event taking place in sunny Tempe, Arizona.

Canadian Junior Curling Championship
Stratford, Ontario
Jan. 23 – 31

2015 Champions:  Manitoba – Braden Calvert (men) & Alberta – Kelsey Rocque (women)

Format:  Round Robin with Provinces/Territories divided into two pools of seven.  Top 3 in each pool advance to Championship Round Robin, where Top 3 advance to playoffs.  #1 seed earning a bye to the championship final while #2 vs #3 play in the semi-final.



The Favorites:

Men – Manitoba is the strong favorite to claim this title, skipped by Matt Dunstone.  Dunstone has been on fire this season not just amongst the junior level but playing on the tour level.  Dunstone made the final of their opening event in Winnipeg, claimed their first title on tour in Bemidji, MN and qualified in Morris, MB.  Add in the experience Dunstone has as a previous Canadian champion (2013) and playing in his first grand slam this season after being called up by defending Brier Champions Team Simmons at the Canadian Open....it is hard to bet against him right now.  He has been placed in the more experienced opening pool but against teams he should have no problem defeating.  Sometimes it is easier to play teams/players you know then battle the unknown (as we will see in the other pool).

Women – Mary Fay’s Nova Scotia team could bring home their first junior title since 2004 (Jill Mouzer).  This is a very wide open field with most of the teams relatively new to the national scene.  Fay easily has the most experience at this level and should have no problem with the added pressure of a national championship, media and bigger arena ice.  Fay is only 17 years old but has the feeling of a seasoned vet on the ice this week.  Last year she stumbled in the championship round and in 2014 she lost in the SF.  This year she seems very determined to finally add that Canadian Junior title to her resume.  She has successfully made a stronger shift to tour life this season as well, picking up her first #wct title in Halifax, knocking off All-Star Colleen Jones in the SF and Mary Mattatall in the F. 

The Challengers:

Men – There are a few teams who could challenge Dunstone’s Manitoba fearsome.  Last year’s runner-up Saskatchewan rink (Jacob Hersikorn) would be the biggest challenge.  The experience of last year, coupled with a repeat title win in Saskatchewan, could drive this team towards another successful run here.  Quebec (Felix Asselin) and Alberta (Karsten Sturmay) were here last year as well and lost out to SK on tie-breakers after the championship round.  Quebec and Alberta find themselves playing Manitoba early though, which could be a benefit.  Northern Ontario (Tanner Horgan) could surprise as well as he returns after a disappointing finish last year missing the championship round.

Women – As previously mentioned, this year sees almost a changing of the guard on the junior women’s ranks.  Most of the teams competing will be relatively new to the national championship stage.  The biggest challenge should come from New Brunswick (Justine Comeau) if we go on experience alone.  Comeau was here last year, just missing the playoffs.  Also, expect to see British Columbia (Sara Daniels) challenge for the title.  Last year Daniels went undefeated in the B.C. provincials only to lose the final to Corryn Brown (who would end up finishing runner-up at this event).  This season Daniels reversed the result and dominated Brown in the B.C. final.  The loss last year was a learning lesson for the team and they seem very hungry this year.

The Dark Horse:

Men – British Columbia (Tyler Tardi) could be the surprise team during the week-long event.  The B.C. teams have struggled at this event the past few years come the pressure-packed Championship Round.  This year could see a change.  B.C. is playing in the wide open Pool B for the opening round robin where anything could happen due to the teams having less experience (besides Team SK).  If Tardi can rally his boys to a strong opening round robin result, they could shock the big boys down the road.

Women – Alberta (Selena Sturmay) should not be taken lightly either.  With brother Kartsen also here competing for the men and with the experience of being here last year, sister Selena could lean on him for support and encouragement.  Sturmay went undefeated in AB provincials, including a victory over previous SK junior champion Kristen Streifel.  The question will be how the nerves hold up.  Alberta draws the easier of the two pools I think and Sturmay should have a good shot at making the championship round.

What To Watch For (W2W4):  This year we will crown new champions for the first time in three years.  Both Calvert and Rocque won the previous two Canadian junior titles.  With Rocque moving on to women’s play this season and Calvert losing in the Manitoba Junior Provincial semi-final, we will see new champions.  However, we may not necessarily see new provinces at the top of the podium.  Both Manitoba and Alberta field strong teams (on both sides of the draw) and could continue their recent domination.  Note Manitoba has won the past 3 Canadian Junior men’s titles and Alberta has claimed 3 of the past 4 Canadian Junior ladies titles.

Championship Round Qualifiers:

Men – Manitoba (Dunstone), Quebec (Asselin), Alberta (Surmay), Saskatchewan (Hersikorn), British Columbia (Tardi), Northern Ontario (Horgan)

Women – New Brunswick (Comeau), Alberta (Sturmay), Quebec (St-Georges), Nova Scotia (Fay), British Columbia (Daniels), Ontario (Auld)

Championship:

Men – Manitoba (Dunstone) over Saskatchewan (Hersikorn)  Unfortunately make it back-to-back championship final losses for the young Saskatchewan team but it is just too hard to bet against Dunstone and how they are curling this season.  This really is their championship for the taking.

Women – Nova Scotia (Fay) over British Columbia (Daniels)  This could be a tough one to call as both teams look really good heading into this event.  I really think experience takes over here though.  I actually expect Daniels to win the championship pool and receive the bye to the finals but Fay will come through the SF and that momentum will guide her to the coveted Canadian title she has been fighting for.

Scotties Tournament of Hearts Qualifying 



As of press time, we already know 4 teams joining the field in Grande Prairie.  Congratulations to the following teams:

Team Canada – Jennifer Jones
P.E.I. – Suzanne Birt
Yukon – Nicole Baldwin
Nunavut – Geneva Chislett

A few notes here.  Huge congrats to Team Chislett being crowned the first ever Scotties women’s champions from Nunavut.  It is exciting to see Nunavut send a team to the national championship this year.  Nicole Baldwin claims her first Yukon title, after defending champion Sarah Koltun decided to take the year off to pursue her education.  Prior to the official start of the Scotties, a pre-qualification playoff will take place.  This year, based on results from last year, the teams competing will be:  Northwest Territories, Yukon, Nunavut and British Columbia.

By Sunday, we will crown another 8 provincial champions and start rounding out what this year’s national championship will look like.  Let’s jump right into the provincial previews and predictions as we travel the #RoadToGP:

British Columbia

2015 Champion: Team Patti Knezevic

Format: 9-team round robin with Top 4 advancing to page playoff

Top Teams Entered:  Team Kelly Scott, Team Patti Knezevic, Team Kesa Van Osch

W2W4:  B.C. faces the daunting task of knowing they have to play the pre-qualification tournament due to Knezevic’s last place finish last year.  There are some strong teams competing this week though and this should be a close contest.  Former Canadian and World Champion Kelly Scott is always in the consideration conversation as a threat.  Past champions Van Osch should also contend.  Knezevic would love to return to the Scotties and make up for last year’s performance.  But if you really want a dark horse to cheer for, how about Diane Gushulak.  Gushulak has been to the Scotties before, playing with Ontario’s Alison Goring (1995) and as an alternate for Kelly Scott (2009).  Gushulak formed her own team last season and struggled but have been playing quite well on tour this season, winning two titles.  They may not grab the headlines this week against the more well-known teams, but their results this season should make them a contender.

Playoff Teams:  Team Scott, Team Van Osch, Team Gushulak, Team Wark

B.C. Championship:  Team Scott over Team Gushulak

Alberta

2015 Champion:  Team Val Sweeting

Format:  12-team triple knockout with 4 qualifiers.

Top Teams Entered:  Team Sweeting, Team Rocque, Team Carey

W2W4:  Can Team Sweeting make it 3 in a row?  This will be the biggest storyline throughout this event.  Can anyone dethrone the champs?  Sweeting has not only won back-to-back Alberta titles but has also made back-to-back Scotties tournament finals.  They own this province right now.  But the future could be now with up and coming Team Rocque.  Fresh off her own back-to-back Alberta and Canadian championships (in juniors of course) Kelsey Rocque could be the biggest hurdle to Val’s three-peat.  Team Carey and the resurgence of Team Shannon Kleibrink could pose a threat as well.  But given the results this season, this is Val’s title for the taking once again.

Playoff Teams:  Team Sweeting, Team Rocque, Team Kleibrink, Team Carey

Alberta Champion:  Team Sweeting over Team Rocque

Manitoba

2015 Champion:  Team Jennifer Jones

Format:  16-team round robin with two groups of 8.  Top two in each pool advance to the page playoff.

Top Teams Entered:  Team McDonald, Team Einarson

W2W4:  With Team Jones winning the Scotties last year, this year’s Manitoba Scotties is wide open and ready for the taking.  Last time we saw this, Chelsea Carey was able to finally claim her first buffalo (with Kristy McDonald as vice).  Could we see another first-time champion crowned this weekend?  Team Einarson and Team McDonald would be the co-favorites based on how they have played this season.  Einarson winning the Tour Challenge Tier II event excelled their season and helped push them to the next level.  Plus Einarson did lose the final last year to Jones.  It won’t be easy though.  We should see a battle for the playoffs between a few teams, such as Team Barb Spencer (last year’s 3rd place team) or previous champion Team Cathy Overton-Clapham (who came out of retirement talk to continue playing).  We could also see two dark horse picks challenge the bigger names in Team Michelle Wiens (Montford) and Team Shannon Birchard.  Wiens has a tour title under her belt this season (Mother Club Fall Classic) and Birchard is fresh out of juniors and looking ready to compete with the top dogs.

Playoff Teams:  Team McDonald, Team Wiens, Team Einarson, Team Spencer

Manitoba Champion:  Team Einarson over Team McDonald

Ontario

2015 Champion:  Team Julie Hastings

Format:  10-team round robin with Top 4 advancing to the page playoff.

Top Teams Entered:  Team Homan, Team Hastings, Team Middaugh, Team Flaxey

W2W4:  Guess who’s back?  For the first time in 3 years, Team Homan is back playing for an Ontario championship.  And that cannot be good news to her fellow 9-teams.  Homan has dominated the tour this season and is a HUGE favorite to win the Ontario crown once again.  There has been talk about the team looking a bit vulnerable lately, losing the SF of the skins and not looking as dominant at the Continental Cup.  However, they lost the skins by a draw to the button and the Continental Cup they lost their opening game and never looked back.  This team has a drive to succeed and will not be distracted by the rumors of their recent play.  However, this field is still very strong and it will not be easy for Homan.  Previous champions Team Hastings, Team Middaugh and Team Flaxey will put up a challenge.  Even past champion Jenn Hanna returns to the mix this season and could be a surprise dark horse.  Add in seasoned vet teams like Team Auld and Team Harrison with up and coming teams like Team Morrissey and Team Kean....this will be a dog fight of a round robin.  Sure Homan is a lock for the playoffs but who will join her could be a toss-up between any of the remaining 9 teams.  If you want some drama and intensity, the Ontario Scotties is the one to watch this weekend....even with a strong favorite.

Playoff Teams:  Team Homan, Team Middaugh, Team Hastings, Team Harrison

Ontario Champion:  Team Homan over Team Hastings

Northern Ontario

2015 Champion:  Team Tracey Fleury

Format:  4-team round robin with Top 2 advancing to the championship final

Top Teams Entered:  Team Fleury, Team McCarville

W2W4:  With no disrespect to Team Payne and Team Wiseman, this is a two-horse race coming down the wire.  Defending champion Team Fleury has been a team on a roll since last season.  They survived the pre-qualification at last year’s Scotties and rode that to a 5th place finish in their first (both team and provincial designation) Scotties.  They have grand slam experience under their belts and seem poised for a repeat run this season.  Enter the return of Krista McCarville.  And what a comeback!  She may have cemented herself as the Comeback Player of the Year with how her team is playing.  5 events, 4 wins.  In fact, 4 wins IN A ROW!!  This team is rolling and peaking at the perfect time.  Sure there may only be 4 teams competing this week in Timmons but the race for the championship is going to be a hot one to follow.  This should get exciting!

Playoff Teams:  Team Fleury, Team McCarville

Northern Ontario Champion:  Team McCarville over Team Fleury

Quebec

2015 Champion:  Team Lauren Mann

Format:  5-team round robin with Top 3 advancing to playoffs.  Top seed earning a bye to the championship final.

Top Teams Entered:  Team Mann, Team Larouche

W2W4:  Another welcome back....we have a theme going rock heads!  Marie-France Larouche returns in her bid for another Quebec Scotties title.  A 6-time champion, Larouche has not been competing for a Quebec title since 2013.  Coming off back-to-back titles, 2013 was a low point as she failed to even make the Quebec playoffs.  After taking 2014 and 2015 off, Larouche is back and ready to return to the national championship.  Bad news perhaps for defending champion Lauren Mann.  Mann won her first title last year and finished with a 3-8 record at the Scotties.  However they showed a lot of future promise last season and, with Larouche out of the picture, seemed to be the future of Quebec women’s curling.  This will be a big challenge for Mann and her team.  Do we see history repeating with Larouche’s return or does the future become the present and Mann show she is where Quebec curling is going?  Worth noting, Roxane Perron and her team have been biting at the heels of this championship for the past few seasons and have just come up short every time.  With all the focus on Larouche and Mann, what a story it would be to see Perron fly under the radar and steal this championship.

Playoff Teams:  Team Mann, Team Larouche, Team Perron

Quebec Champion:  Team Larouche over Team Mann

Nova Scotia

2015 Champion:  Team Mary-Anne Arsenault

Format: 8-team round robin with Top 3 advancing to playoffs.  Top seed earning a bye to the championship final.

Top Teams Entered:  Team Arsenault, Team Jones, Team Breen

W2W4:  You know the theme here folks....welcome back Colleen Jones!  Colleen is joined with previous teammates Kim Kelly and Nancy Delahunt while adding Mary Sue Radford to the mix in an attempt to take back the Nova Scotia title from her previous teammate Mary-Anne Arsenault.  Arsenault has skipped Team Nova Scotia at two of the past three Scotties; however, last year was her first year without Jones and company.  She is finally finding success on her own, with her own team.  Could a previous teammate derail her hopes though this week?  Jones, fresh off a new book and book tour this summer/fall, looks ready to recapture the title and head back to the Scotties.  It will be interesting to watch these two battle it out as competitors rather than teammates this week.  But hold up, this is not a two-team race friends.  Arsenault and Jones may attract the most attention but watch out of Team Theresa Breen.  Breen has followed the blueprint of Arsenault in surrounding herself with a younger line-up and has found success on tour this season picking up a title and two runner-up finishes.  Do not undersell the potential of this team.  Add in previous Canadian Junior women’s champ Jill Brothers (Mouzar) and up and coming Team Emily Dwyer and this race could be a lot more competitive than people think.

Playoff Teams:  Team Arsenault, Team Jones, Team Breen

Nova Scotia Champion:  Team Jones over Team Arsenault

Tim Hortons Brier Qualifying



The 2016 Tim Hortons Brier will take place March 5 – 13 in Ottawa.  While this might seem a bit far away, provinces and territories are already crowning their champions to prepare for the event.  As of press time, congratulations to the following teams for booking their spot in Ottawa:

Team Canada – Pat Simmons
Nunavut – Wade Kingdon
Yukon – Bob Smallwood

Special congratulations to Team Kingdon on becoming the first Nunavut men’s champion.  Similar to the women, it is great to see Nunavut crown a territorial champion this year and send a team to the national championship.  We continue to #growthesport! 

Once again, this year we will see a pre-qualification event take place.  This year, based on the results of a year ago, the teams competing will be:  Nova Scotia, Nunavut, Yukon and Northwest Territories.  By the end of the weekend, we will know 3 of the 4 pre-qualification teams competing.  The #RoadToOttawa begins for two more provinces this week:

Quebec

2015 Champion:  Jean-Michel Menard

Format:  14-team round robin with teams split into two pools of 7.  Top 2 in each pool advance to the page playoff.

Top Teams Entered:  Team Menard, Team Hemmings

W2W4:  Will Team Menard domination continue?  They are the 3-time defending champions and have won 7 of the past 11 championships.  The last man to beat Menard and win the title was Robert Desjardins back in 2012, who is in the competition this year playing with skip Pierre-Luc Morissette and throwing forth stones.  Main rival the past few seasons, Michael Fournier, is also back to try and finally win a WFG Tankard.  Most fans eyes will be on the return...again welcome back...of Guy Hemmings.  Hemmings has always been a crowd favorite and will no doubt be crowd favorite again this week.  Hemmings is a 4-time Tankard champion and two-time Brier runner-up (1998, 1999).  While I am a fan of Hemmings, it may be tough to make a run to this championship given the field.  Would it be a great story?  Absolutely.  Will it happen?  Probably not.

Playoff Teams:  Team Menard, Team Dion, Team Fournier, Team Munroe

Quebec Champion:  Team Menard over Team Fournier

Nova Scotia

2015 Champion:  Glen MacLeod

Format: 8-team round robin with Top 3 advancing to the playoffs.  Top seed earning a bye to the championship final.

Top Teams Entered:  Team Adams, Team Murphy

W2W4:  Can Nova Scotia return to the Brier?  Last year Nova Scotia competed in the pre-qualification playoff and, surprisingly to many, found themselves eliminated during the round robin (although due to a horrible draw to the button rule mind you).  For a province with a Brier victory as recent as 2004, this is a bit of shock and disappointment for curling fans.  There are some outstanding teams competing this week though in hopes of returning Nova Scotia to curling glory once again.  The biggest story will be Team Shawn Adams.  Adams put together an All-Star rink with Mark Dacey, Craig Savill and Andrew Gibson.   With the recent announcement of Savill’s battle with cancer (#FUCancer, #GoSavill), all eyes will be on Adams team to try and win this for Savs.  And they should be considered the favorite with adding Ian Fitzner-Leblanc to the team.  On paper, this team should dominate this event and have no trouble joining the “elite” once again.  Plus, as a fan of the sport, how cool would it be to see this team in Ottawa competing with (hopefully) Savs listed as their 5th man.  Savill is from Ottawa and the opportunity to compete at the Brier in your home city, during this difficult time, would be amazing to see happen.  Team Jamie Murphy and Team Chad Stevens could present a roadblock on the way mind you.  And, if you like a dark horse to keep an eye on, watch out for Team Stuart Thompson and Team Jamie Danbrook.  If you have followed along with this blog this season, you will be familiar with both of these names.  They may not nab the title this weekend but both could be the future of Nova Scotia curling.  

Playoff Teams:  Team Adams, Team Murphy, Team Stevens

Nova Scotia Champion:  Team Adams over Team Murphy

World Curling Tour

Ed Werenich Golden Wrench Classic
Tempe, Arizona

2015 Champion:  New Event

Format:  20-team round robin with 5 teams in 4 pools.  The top 8 teams qualify for the playoffs.

Top Teams Entered:  Team McEwen, Team Simmons, Team Thomas, Team Lyburn, Team Shuster, Team Cotter

W2W4:  Get ready for #CurlingInTheDesert friends.  Could there be any better event to truly embrace the #growthesport mantra this season than this event?  And what a line up!  Congrats to Coyotes Curling Club for hosting this event and attracting many top teams from North America and Japan.  Many of the top Canadian teams will be using this event as a warm-up for their upcoming provincial championships.  Team Simmons (as Team Canada) will need to find success at this event as they want to get as much competitive curling ice time in as possible since they bypass provincials again this year and have the direct entry to the Brier.  Also worth noting, this is the final opportunity for teams to accumulate grand slam qualifying points for the upcoming Elite 10 in Victoria, B.C.  For more information on this event, check out the Coyotes Curling Club website HERE where they will also be live streaming games all weekend.

Playoff Teams:  Team McEwen, Team Lyburn, Team Bottcher, Team Lizmore, Team Simmons, Team Thomas, Team Shuster, Team Cotter

Champion:  Team Thomas over Team McEwen – Yup, going with a bit of an upset here.  Team Thomas is a hot team right now and will want to build some momentum heading into the BP Cup this year, knowing they will have to be at the top of their game to knock off Team Koe.  Plus Team Thomas is on the cusp of qualifying for the Elite 10.  A strong run in Arizona would help the climb and qualify them for their first grand slam.  Don’t get me wrong though, #redpants will come out firing this weekend as well.  They also want to build momentum and confidence heading into the much-anticipated (or dreaded depending who you ask) Manitoba provincial championship.  Mikey and the boys looked good in Banff but not great.  They will find their stride though and I think it happens in the desert.


There ya have it stoners and rock heads.  A bit long of a post this week but we had a lot to cover right?  I hope you follow along with all the provincial championship action either in person at your local curling club or through CurlingZone.  I will be at the Alberta Scotties event, beginning Friday afternoon covering games live for CurlingGeek.  Feel free to join in on the conversation and the fun online all weekend with me.