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Tuesday, 26 April 2016

#BetweenTheSheets: A Battle Royal For Season Supremacy 
The #ChampionsCup brings a close to very...interesting...curling season


It has finally happened good friends.  The 2015/16 #curling season is coming to a close this weekend.  We are saying goodbye to April, hello to May....and an off-season for the record books perhaps in the sport?  This has been an interesting season to follow and, when we all look back on it, this perhaps will be a turning point for the sport moving forward (and hopefully in a positive direction).  But before we start focusing on looking back on the overall season, we have an ultimate battle royal style event to get through.

Since we last chatted rock heads, a few events have happened and champions have been crowned.  It's that infamous time of the blog to look back before we look forward.  Yup....let's go for the quick #GunnerRunback.

  • The Players Championship wrapped up April 17 in Toronto.  The end result seemed to be a bit of #historyrepeating and indicative of the entire season perhaps.  Brad Gushue once again locked up another grand slam title defeating defending champion Brad Jacobs in the final.  With the win, Gushue secured his 3rd grand slam of the season (National, Elite 10) and, more importantly, completed the career grand slam.  Unfortunately for Brad Jacobs, a difficult season comes to an end as the team was unable to find the victory circle this season and did not qualify for the season-ending Champions Cup.
  • The Players Championship also wrapped up for the women and...#historyrepeating once again friends.  Eve Muirhead was able to repeat her title from 2015 and claim her 3rd Players Championship in 4 years by defeating Jennifer Jones in the final.  She is also the only international champion, men's or women's, for the event.  Strong SF results for Silvana Tirinzoni and Kerri Einarson also highlighted the event.  The big storyline also was Einarson, after being down 6-2, coming back to defeat Rachel Homan in the QF and denying Homan a shot at history and completing the calendar grand slam.  As Serena found out in the US Open SF, never underestimate an opponent!
  • The European Masters closed the house in St. Gallen, Switzerland on April 23.  Sweden's Nik Edin captured the title, defeating Scotland's David Murdoch in the final.  Both teams will be in Sherwood Park this week competing at the Champions Cup and hoping to bring a grand slam title home to European soil for the first time this season.  Switzerland's Reto Keller picked up the bronze.
  • The European Masters women's event came to a close with newly crowned world champion Binia Feltscher continuing her hot streak this Spring claiming the title with a championship final victory over Eve Muirhead.  Team Feltscher has wrapped up their season as they are unable to compete in Sherwood Park due to work commitments.  Not a bad ending to the season though.  Germany's Daniela Driendl picked up the bronze medal over former world champion Bingyu Wang.


Both the Players Championship and European Masters saw top teams competing for a championship win this late in the season.  With a quick look to the past, let's now examine the present.  Here comes the updated #PowerRankings based on the results in Toronto and St. Gallen.

Men

T1. Kevin Koe (LW: 1)
T1. Brad Gushue (2)
3. Brad Jacobs (3)
4. Mike McEwen (4)
5. David Murdoch (NR)

Hon. Mention:  Team Edin, Team Laycock, Team Shuster

Women

1. Rachel Homan (LW: 1)
2. Binia Feltscher (2)
3. Eve Muirhead (HM)
4. Jennifer Jones (4)
5. Anna Sidorova (3)

Hon. Mention:  Team Fujisawa, Team Tirinzoni

Even this late in the season we are still seeing teams move up or drop down the power rankings.  Teams are fighting to reach the pinnacle of the #TwineTime rankings mountain!  Ok, so maybe most teams do not care about a #TwineTime ranking...or even know it exists....but I can still tell myself they do right?  Besides power rankings are fun!  Here is a quick summary of the changes above:

  • Koe and Gushue.  Gushue and Koe.  Going into the final event of the season, I am just going to deadlock them at the top of the mountain and let the results on the ice in Sherwood Park determine top spot.  Whichever team wins the event (or makes it the furthest) will become the #TwineTime #PowerRankings Men's Champion!  These two teams are just too close to call and evenly matched.
  • David Murdoch sure is making a nice charge at the end of the season isn't he?  He has claimed the final 3 European tour spots of the season (German Masters, Aberdeen International, European Masters).  Add in the SF finish at the Players Championship and all of sudden the Olympic silver medal winner is back!  This is great to see as Murdoch is an all-around champion of the sport and this resurgence hopefully carries over into next season.
  • I still cannot see anyone knocking Homan off the top of the mountain.  Homan has been the #1 team all season on tour and, even with a stumble in Sherwood Park and going winless, I still would find it hard to take her out of the #1 spot.  Feltscher finished her season with another tour victory in Switzerland and will finish near the top of the rankings as well.  It will be tough to "punish" the world champs by dropping them down the final standings due to inactivity...especially given the reason being work commitments.
  • Having said that, both Muirhead and Jones could make strong cases towards finishing in the Top 3.  I would say Muirhead probably has the only shot at finishing #2, needing a strong result (perhaps winning honestly) in Sherwood Park to pass Feltscher.  Jones could pass Muirhead though with a strong finish of her own combined with a Muirhead stumble.  Watch out for Tirinzoni though.  She could go from Hon. Mention to Top 5 (or higher) with another playoff push this weekend.

The final grand slam of curling event will hit the ice this week in Sherwood Park, AB.  Everyone keeps saying the event is in Edmonton, it isn't!  It's in Sherwood Park people.  For those who have never been to the Edmonton area, let me give you a few quick pointers.  Sherwood Park is a city located just outside Edmonton (literally separated by the Anthony Henday Drive).  Yes, having lived in Edmonton for 9 years, Sherwood Park does almost feel a part of Edmonton but trust me it is not.  They are their own city.  One other small pet peeve: flying into Edmonton.  Technically the Edmonton International Airport is located in Nisku, AB so you never ACTUALLY fly into Edmonton if you are arriving at YEG.  Just sayin'....


Anywho....let's get back to the sport before I digress on other random topics of debate.  This year will be the inaugural #ChampionsCup event and one I hope sticks around for many years.  I am a HUGE fan of this format.  I have been saying for years how curling should have a year-end spiel bringing together tour event winners for an all out battle for season supremacy...and here we are.  It doesn't matter if you won one event or six events, if you are invited to compete at Champions Cup it is because you were able to do something sooooo many teams around the world were unable to do: WIN!  Sometime during this past season you outscored, outplayed and outshot every other team on the ice and ended up hoisting a victory trophy and earning a nice pay day.

I am also a fan of the automatic qualification events identified for this event.  Obviously winning any of the #gsoc grand slam events earns automatic qualification.  The Brier and Scotties winner makes sense as well as does the World Champs.  But it's the international addition I am most excited about.  Granting Champions Cup spots to the USA National Champions, European Champions, Asia/Pacific Champions....that's how you continue to #growthesport and ensure more teams have more shots to qualify.  And how about the addition of the World Junior Champions?!  Nothing says #growthesport more than having our world junior champs warm their sliders at a grand slam event next to the best of the best this season.

Now of course this cannot all be about pumping the tires for the event.  There are a few issues I have.  Most notably the 15 team qualification system and the round robin format.  I think including the Tour Challenge and Elite 10 winners is not necessary.  These feel like Tier II grand slam events (or a gimmick grand slam in the case of the Elite 10 in my opinion).  A grand slam season is 4 events...always is and always will be.  Every other major sport only has 4 grand slams.  It makes sense.  Only the 4 major grand slams (Masters, National, Canadian Open, Players Championship) should receive an auto bid to the Champions Cup.  We don't need to give the "elite" 10-12 teams two more additional opportunities to qualify do we?  I would rather see some of the so-called "middle of the pack" ranked teams who did win an event compete.  Besides, as was the case this year, Brad Gushue and Kevin Koe kind of cleaned up most of these auto berths.  If I could position the qualification system for the Champions Cup, here is how it would look:

  • 4 grand slam winners (Masters, National, Canadian Open, Players Championship)
  • World Champion
  • World Junior Champion
  • Canadian Champion (Brier & Scotties)
  • USA National Champion
  • European Champion
  • Asia/Pacific Champion
  • 6 Tour event winners (based on current Strength of Field Multiplier)

This would bring 16 teams to the event...yes I know 1 more than the current field.  Here me out.  I actually would prefer to see this event be a triple knockout with 4 playoff qualifiers rather than the round robin.  This is the ultimate final event of the season....let's fight this out elimination style.  I get the logistical issues with this, having both a men's and women's knockout event happening simultaneously would be difficult.  But wouldn't it be more exciting?!?!  I hear some of you out there already saying "But #TwineTime, you say you like the event because it is similar to other sports like tennis.  Tennis' year-end event is a round robin and it works".  Yes, true.  But this is also how curling can differentiate itself in a way from other similar sport year-end events.  I find the intensity is amplified in a knockout.  A round robin will more than likely produce a few meaningless games.  For a year-end battle royal event, nobody wants a meaningless game on the ice!  Perhaps I am trying too hard though to blow this event up to a bigger deal than people see it?  But I think I am on to something here friends.

By the way...if you are looking for a way to get excited about this event, you should be following Heather Nedohin on twitter.  She has been killing social media leading up to this event with the cardboard player cut outs being all over the city promoting the event.  To no surprise, Nik Edin seems to be the most popular though...even ending up in Nedohin's kitchen and getting a stern warning from husband David.  Although David did pucker up for a kiss with Rachel Homan so perhaps all is fair.  Check it out..

Time to get to the fun part: #TourLifePredictions.  This is the final prediction post of the season so the pressure is on to go out with a big finish....and who doesn't like a BIG finish right?  Size matters right?  RIGHT?  Ok ok...back to the event at hand.  I am going to stick with the similar format used during the World Mixed Doubles Championship preview and prediction post.  The format was a bit different than what I have done during the season and, with a round robin style of event play, this seems to be a bit easier.  Let me know what you think though....

Champions Cup 

Sherwood Park, Alberta, Canada

2015 Champions:  New Event

Format:  15 men's and women's teams competing within 3 pools of 5 round robin style.  The overall top 8 advance to the playoff round.

Pool A - Men

The pool of international love apparently.  We have a two-time World Champion from Sweden.  A current World Junior Champion from Scotland.  A current World Bronze Medal winner from USA.  Add in two strong Canadian teams (one being the most dominant on tour this season) and we are in for a real treat to see how this group unfolds.  Gushue has already racked up over $100K in winnings this season and will be looking to add to his bank account.  Edin had a disappointing world championship, missing the playoffs.  But has rebounded with a beauty of a win last weekend in Switzerland.  The wild card here will be Bruce Mouat.  The world junior champ is fresh off a strong finish at the World Mixed Doubles Curling Championships, representing Scotland with Gina Aitken.  How this team responds to playing the top men's teams in the world will be the question mark.  But there is something about playing with nothing to lose as well.  Do any of the other 4 teams want to be the team(s) on the losing end to the world junior champs or even eliminated from the event because of it?  This group also features a member of the #TwineTime family as Chris Plys will be playing the role of super lead subbing in on Team Shuster.  This group is rounded out by 2015 Manitoba Champions Team Carruthers.  Carruthers does have a grand slam final under their belt this season (Elite 10, l. to Gushue) but did struggle at the recent Players Championship.  How they rebound could dictate what happens in this group.

Favourites:  Gushue
Watch Out For:  Edin
Dark Horse:  Mouat
The Rest:  Shuster, Carruthers


Pool B - Men

The Wild Rose Pool dominates here with 3 home province Alberta teams finding themselves grouped together.  The Alberta fans will have lots to cheer for watching Pool B action, led by current World Champion Team Koe.  The bigger storyline will be the swan song final event of Team Simmons.  Recently announced to be parting ways this off-season, this *could* be the final time we see Carter Rycroft and #TwineTime family member Nolan Thiessen on the ice.  Regular vice John Morris is out for the season with injury so the team will welcome Tom Sallows to the line up this week.  Of course Morris will be back next season rejoining Team Cotter in B.C.  As for Pat Simmons, still unclear where he ends up but rumors are flying he will stay in the Wild Rose province next season.  With all the attention on Koe and Simmons, regular flying under the radar team Steve Laycock could once again prove to play spoiler on the home province parade.  This is a winnable group for #TeamOranje...with another #TwineTime family member Kirk Muyres rocking the orange!  Don't sleep on the international flavour in this group either though, Switzerland's Peter de Cruz.  Sure they have struggled a bit on tour this season but they have a win to get here and could just surprise a few teams.  And, keeping with the #growthesport theme, it will be interesting to see how relative grand slam newcomer Team Lizmore does.  This is why this event is great....opportunity to see more teams.  Let's see how they do.

Favourites: Koe
Watch Out For: Laycock
Dark Horse: de Cruz 
The Rest: Simmons, Lizmore


Pool C - Men

Of all the men's pools, I would consider this one to be the Pool of Death.  You have two proven grand slam winners (McEwen, Epping).  Arguably one of the hottest teams on tour the past few months (Murdoch).  A red-hot American team perhaps slightly still spurned by being crowned national champions but not competing at worlds (Clark).  And an up and coming team knocking on the door step in Saskatchewan the past few seasons and seemingly ready for a big coming out party (Meachem).  This could be tough to call.  I wouldn't underestimate any team in this group and, realistically, I can make a strong case for any of these 5 to make the playoffs.  Hold on tight for this one folks....

Favourites: McEwen
Watch Out For: Murdoch
Dark Horse:  Meachem
The Rest: Epping, Clark


Pool A - Women

Pool B for the men was dominated by Alberta teams, Pool A for the women is all about Ontario.  Three Ontario teams will battle it out in this pool, led by #1 Team Homan.  Northern Ontario's Krista McCarville is here as well though and, fresh off a second place finish in her return to the Scotties, could be a team to make some noise.  Home province favourite Val Sweeting is here too...in the same pool with regular rival Team Homan.  Hmmm...many predicted these two would play for Scotties gold this season.  Can they settle for Champions Cup round robin reign instead?  Looks like they have to.  Don't sleep on Japan's Satsuki Fujisawa either.  Fujisawa is coming off a surprise silver medal finish at the worlds in Swift Current has shown flying under the radar is exactly the recipe for success for this team.  Ontario's Jacqueline Harrison rounds out the group and was one of the final teams to earn a spot in the event.

Favourites: Homan
Watch Out For: Fujisawa
Dark Horse:  McCarville
The Rest: Sweeting, Harrison


Pool B - Women

The Group of Death for the women's division is Pool B.  How else do you explain seeing Jennifer Jones, Eve Muirhead, Stef Lawton and the surging Kerri Einarson.  At best one of these teams will not be making the playoffs for sure, perhaps even two depending how results shake out.  I would suspect Jones and Muirhead should still be relatively safe to advance but you never know.  Both teams have had their moments of looking unbeatable but also moments of looking completely at a loss.  This will be the first event with Lawton and Beth Iskiw, newly joining forces for next season.  Perhaps a perfect event to work out those new team kink dynamics though.  Plus sister Marliese Kasner is fresh off representing Canada at the World Mixed Doubles Championship.  And of course who can forget Einarson and her magical run at the Players Championship with the huge defeat of Homan.  Former Ontario Scotties champ Alison Flaxey rounds out the field, earning the final qualification spot for the event when Muirhead won the Players Championship.

Favourites: Jones, Muirhead
Watch Out For: Einarson
Dark Horse:  Lawton
The Rest: Flaxey


Pool C - Women

No group could possibly be more wide open and unpredictable than this group.  Switzerland's Silvana Tirinzoni should be the favourite to emerge from this group, given their stellar play all season.  Tirinzoni has a grand slam title under her belt (Tour Challenge) and recently made the SF at the Players Championship.  Sure Swiss compatriot's and world champs Team Feltscher aren't here but the Swiss flag will be strongly represented with Tirinzoni in hopes of continuing the Swiss winning streak.  Current Scotties champ Chelsea Carey also lands in this pool.  They will be eager to put aside their performance at the Players Championship (including the 10-0 drubbing at the hands of Team Homan) and will want to find their winning ways again before shutting down for the season.  A key to this group will be the young guns coming to play.  Kelsey Rocque will no doubt have home ice support, growing up in the area.  Rocque is also fresh off a QF appearance at the Players (losing to Tirinzoni).  And what about Team Fay, the current world junior women's champions?  Well, originally I would have expected this team to make a playoff push but now I am a bit unsure.  Skip Mary Fay will not be in Sherwood Park with the team as she is writing finals this week.  B.C.'s Sarah Daniels will fill in for Fay as vice while regular team vice Kristin Clarke moves up to skip.  The line up change could be problematic so this is a bit of a toss-up on how they handle the pressure of their first grand slam on top of a shift in team dynamics.  We also will see the second team from Japan complete this free for all group, Ayumi Ogasawara.  Similar to Fujisawa, Ogasawara can play an all-out attack game and is not afraid to have some rocks in play and go for the big end score.  Flip a coin perhaps on this group friends.

Favourites: Tirinzoni
Watch Out For:  Rocque
Dark Horse:  Clarke (Fay)
The Rest: Carey, Ogasawara


Qualifiers

Men: Gushue, Koe, Murdoch, Edin, Laycock, McEwen, Simmons, Shuster

Women: Homan, Muirhead, Tirinzoni, Jones, Fujisawa, Rocque, Einarson, McCarville

CHAMPIONS CUP WINNERS - MEN: Team Gushue over Team Murdoch - The hottest team all season vs. the hottest team in 2016.  It is almost unbelievable to remember Murdoch did not win the Scottish Championship and represent Scotland at the World Championships this year given how they have played the past 3 months.  Every event they have played they have basically won.  A SF showing at the Players and runner-up finish at the European Masters shows this team is flying with confidence right now and is looking to build towards next season.  But never count out the Goo!  Outside of the Brier, lets be honest #curling fans, this was Gushue's season!  The reason teams like Shuster, de Cruz, Lizmore and Meachem are here this week is because of Gushue.  The team from The Rock won 8 events this season which would have served as qualifiers for this event.  They won 3 grand slam events.  They took home 4 of the top 8 strength of field events on tour (outside of the grand slam events remember).  Plus it has been a tough season on the team, skipper especially.  Remember the now infamous fall?  The black eye and bruise still haunts all of us today.  The Champions Cup is set to crown a season champion and for the 2015/16 season this inaugural event deserves to fly across the country and rest in Newfoundland and Labrador all summer.


CHAMPIONS CUP WINNERS - WOMEN: Team Tirinzoni over Team Muirhead - I am sticking by my Switzerland bias perhaps this year and my belief in Tirinzoni.  They really have been one of the most consistent teams on tour this season and while they may not have all the big wins their competitors have, they are still capable of beating anyone in this event at any time...and that confidence matters!  Muirhead is going to be tough to beat though, fresh off a Players Championship and runner-up finish in Switzerland (losing to the world champs nonetheless).  Muirhead has struggled against the Swiss teams this season so...if you can't beat them, join them perhaps?  With regular vice Anna Sloan sidelined for the rest of the season due to injury, Muirhead went to the top female curling nation to find a replacement inviting Nadine Lehmann to join her this week.  Lehmann is the vice for 2015 World Champion Alina Paetz...me thinks she knows a thing or two about winning and competing in big events.  Either way, come Sunday, the Champions Cup trophy will have the fingerprints of Switzerland all over it.


Well there you have it rock heads and stoners.  The final preview and prediction blog of the season.  Almost brings a small tear to the eye doesn't it?  Don't get too sad though.  I am excited (and thankful) to Sportsnet for granting me media accreditation to the Champions Cup this week so off to Sherwood Park I go.  I will be taking in the action beginning Thursday afternoon.  Stay tuned to twitter (@twinetime14) for live updates, pics, vids and perhaps surprise cameo's and behind the scenes excitement from the Sherwood Park Arena Sports Centre.  As well, catch the action live on Sportsnet or follow along with scores at the Grand Slam of Curling website.

Oh and don't think this is the end of the season for the #TwineTime blog either.  I still may have a few surprises up my sleeve to end the season with a bang....#StayTuned