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Friday, 15 April 2016

#BetweenTheSheets: History Comes Alive At The Players' Championship
The #GoldStandard final grand slam takes centre ice in Toronto


Welcome back rock heads and stoners....I feel like we have not connected in awhile.  Ok, I realize it has only been a week or so but still.  During the season we were touching base every week talking about all the exciting action on the ice.  Can you believe we are down to the final few weeks of the 2015/16 #curling season?  And what a season it has been....but let's save all that talk for the post-season review blog post (perhaps with a very special guest *hint hint hint*).

You know what we have not done in a long time?  An update to the #PowerRankings!  When the curling season hit provincial/territorial playdowns for the Scotties and Brier, the power rankings took a brief hiatus.  It was just too difficult to maintain and update...plus it would have been too strongly focused on Canadian teams as most international teams were not competing competitively during this time.  But as we enter the final #gsoc event of the season, let's take a look at how the power rankings have shifted (or have they?).  The last power rankings were conducted on January 20, 2016 (click HERE for a memory refresher).  You know there has to be some movement now...

Men

1. Kevin Koe (LR: 2)
2. Brad Gushue (1)
3. Brad Jacobs (4)
4. Mike McEwen (5)
5. John Shuster (NR)

Hon. Mention:  Team Epping, Team Stjerne, Team Laycock

Women

1. Rachel Homan (LR: 1)
2. Binia Feltscher (NR)
3. Anna Sidorova (5)
4. Jennifer Jones (2)
5. Satsuki Fujisawa (NR)

Hon. Mention:  Team Muirhead, Team Carey, Team Tirinzoni, Team McCarville

These power rankings are a bit tough given the field of play at the Scotties, Brier and World Championships was quite different in comparison to what we normally see week in and week out on tour.  I also realize many people might disagree with my power rankings...and that's ok too.  Overall I don't think I am that far off though.  Teams like Shuster and Stjerne were rewarded for their amazing results in Switzerland (Shuster is ahead based on overall year results btw).  This is the first time since almost the beginning of the season power rankings we see a change at the top as well with new world champ Kevin Koe taking over...and for obvious reasons.  Gushue seemed to have a lock on this spot earlier in the year but with Koe is finishing the year strong and it's not always how you start...but for sure how you finish!


On the women's side, even with Homan missing the Scotties they are still without a doubt the top women's team on tour this year.  I could not ignore the amazing run of Binia Feltscher though in Swift Current as she collected her second world championship.  Both Sidorova (bronze medal) and Fujisawa (silver medal) moved up (or into) the rankings as well.  Now I know many will say Carey should move up as well but again, overall body of work for the season I am torn on how to rank our current Canadian champions.  Both Sidorova and Fujisawa won continental championships...a bigger victory I think than the Scotties.  Feltscher survived a TOUGH Switzerland championship and has had an ok season on tour.  Jones overall has played better this season than Carey (even with the Scotties loss) so I could not move her down and raise Team Carey up.


I do expect to see some shifting though again after the action in Toronto wraps up.  With so many elite teams competing, both men and women, the #PowerRanking final standings are anything but set in stone (minus Koe and Homan perhaps).  Stay tuned though....

The Players' Championship is the oldest grand slam on the men's tour.  This year's edition will be 22nd time it has been competed.  On the women's side, this will be the 11th year of the event...making it the longest running women's grand slam event as well.  Before we dive into this year's field...and some of the changes....let's take a brief overview of the #GoldStandard grand slam event:

  • We may need to start calling this event Canadian Open 2.0!  In the 21 year history of this event on the men's side, Canadian teams have claimed the title every year.  Kevin Martin leads the way with 8 championship wins with his last coming in 2014.  Not only have Canadian teams dominated the victory circle, the dominate the runner-up position as well.  Only Nik Edin (2011) has mastered the field to make the final. 
  • Poor #redpants!  Mike McEwen has lost two Players' Championship finals...both times when the event has been held in Toronto (2013, 2015).  And both times losing to teams from Ontario: Glenn Howard (2013) and Brad Jacobs (2015).  The Players' Championship is the only grand slam title eluding Team McEwen from collecting the career grand slam. 
  • Speaking of career grand slams, Team Gushue is in a similar boat.  If they can win the championship this weekend they will complete a career grand slam as well.
  • On the women's side, Jennifer Jones loves this event having won 4 times (2006, 2007, 2009, 2014).  But, unlike the men, the international flavour has found it's way to the top of the mountain in recent years.  Defending champion Eve Muirhead is a two-time champ (2013, 2015).  In fact, in both of Muirhead's victory years she defeated a fellow European team in the final (Margaretha Sigfridsson in 2013, Anna Sidorova in 2015).  An even more crazy stat, this is the 3rd year this event has been held in Toronto.  Both previous years saw Muirhead take the title.  So far, unlike the men, Canada has been shut out at this event in Toronto.  You hear that Team Homan?!
  • And in talking about Team Homan and career grand slams, of course they are one Players' Championship away from completing this rare feat as well.  But I think they are more focused on the even more elusive, never been done before record of completing the calendar grand slam instead.  Winning all 4 majors in 1 year would be amazing to see happen.

There will be a few changes to this prestigious event this year.  The most notable change comes from...to no surprise...brushing.  Each team will now only be allowed 3 brushes per game.  The rule surrounding these 3 brushes are:
  • Brushing device No. 1: “Right Brush” — MUST be used by the brusher on the right side of the player delivering the stone, regardless of who is the brusher.
  • Brushing device No. 2: “Left Brush” — MUST be used by the brusher on the left side of the player delivering the stone, regardless of who is the brusher.
  • Brushing device No. 3: “Skip or Vice Skip Brush” — The skip and vice skip MUST begin the event with a “used brush head” to be approved by the head official at the pre-event practice. They must continue with the same head for the entire event.
Oh but the #BroomGate excitement doesn't just end there my friends.  No no no....we also have some rules on how to brush a stone too.  Here is what to look for when watching at home:
  • Brushers cannot be on the same side of brush from the same side at any time.
  • Brushers cannot cross-over to the other side at any time.
  • Players must use the same brush heads in pre-game practice that they will use in the game.
  • To allow for accurate management and to facilitate the above rules, we ask all teams to ensure that they have red brush heads available for the entire event to be used on the red rock side of the sheet.  A different colour such as blue, yellow, orange or black may be used on the yellow side of the sheet.  The brush to be used in the house must be a different colour than the other brushes that are used.


You get all that?  #Yikes  It will be interesting to see what, if any, effect these new brushing rules have on the teams.  If anything we should expect to see some colourful brush heads all week.

There are some fun additions to the competition too....it's not all serious #BroomGate conversation. How about these fun facts:
  • The Top 8 overall teams will advance to the playoff round.  This is in contrast to previous editions of this event where only the Top 6 would advance.  More teams in the playoffs means more curling!
  • Any team with 4 losses will be automatically eliminated from playoff consideration.  Basically, win 2 games and you have a decent shot at the playoffs.  Win 3 games and, with 8 teams qualifying, you should be playing over the weekend.
  • The men's and women's champions will earn the final spots in the season-ended Champions Cup at the end of April in Sherwood Park.  Of teams competing, 7 men's teams (Koe, Carruthers, Gushue, Edin, Epping, Laycock, McEwen) and 7 women's teams (Brown, Carey, Einarson, Jones, Homan, Rocque, Sidorova) have already earned invites.  However, on the women's side, Sidorova and Brown have turned down their invite (along with World Champion Binia Feltscher) resulting in Champions Cup spot for Sweeting.  This mean for 5 men's and 2 women's teams there will be a little extra incentive to take home the title this weekend.  Big names include Jacobs, Howard and Shuster on the men's side and Paetz and Fleury on the women's.
  • The Rogers Grand Slam Cup will be decided this week.  On the women's side, Team Homan needs 2 round robin victories to clinch the title and the bonus $75,000.  Basically this is a done deal!  On the men's side Gushue holds a slim 4 point lead on Koe with Carruthers, McEwen and Epping right behind.  The men's Rogers Grand Slam Cup champion will come down to the final results over the weekend.
  • One of these things is not like the other!  We will see quite a few super spares on the ice at this event.  The super spares include:  Pat Simmons (Team Shuster), Matt Dunstone (Team Thomas), Kristy McDonald (Team Carey) and Cathy Overton-Clapham (Team Muirhead).
Now that you have a preface to the final grand slam of the season, let's shift our attention to ice level with #TourLifePredictions:

The Players' Championship

Toronto, ON

2014 Champions:
Men - Brad Jacobs
Women - Eve Muirhead

Format:  12 men's and women's teams split into two pool of six.  The top 8 teams advance to the playoffs.

The Favourites

Team Kevin Koe - The newly crowned World Champions have been on a roll since their Canada Cup victory.  There is no reason to think this team is not the overwhelming favourite to win in Toronto as well.  Skipper Kevin has 1 Players' Championship to his credit but as vice for John Morris (2004).  This could be the perfect opportunity to collect his first title as a skip.  On the flip side, Brent Laing will be going for his 15th overall grand slam title, which would tie him for third overall with Wayne Middaugh (1 behind Glenn Howard and 2 behind overall leader Kevin Martin).  The only question mark on this team will be the energy and emotion factor.  Can they continue to play this high level of curling consistently or could the long weeks of curling and big events catch up to them?

Team Rachel Homan - Chasing history this week, all eyes will be on Team Homan.  It is pretty remarkable when you think what this team could accomplish with a title victory.  No team, men's or women's, has accomplished the calendar grand slam.  Last year at the U.S. Open tennis event, Serena Williams was aiming for the calendar grand slam and came up short in an upset semi-final loss.  Can Team Homan step into the spotlight and accomplish a feat many did not think was possible?  It won't be easy and many question how this team can rebound from the disappointment of missing the Scotties.  I think they have put all of that behind them now and seem focused on re-writing the history books.  Miss the Scotties...tough year.  Win the calendar grand slam...pretty awesome year!

Watch Out For

Team Brad Jacobs - Can you believe the last title Team Jacobs won was here last year?  Seems almost unheard of for the defending Olympic champions right?  Team Jacobs has struggled this year...by their standards anyway.  Sure they did pick up the TSN All-Star Skins Game title in Banff in January but, while the pay cheque was nice, it is not the same as winning events on tour or grand slams.  I actually expect this team to come out firing in Toronto and looking to salvage their season by defending their title.  Also, they have not yet qualified for the year-end Champions Cup (again, really?).  They have a lot to play for...perhaps a bit more than some of the other teams competing.  I wouldn't underestimate a successful title defence.

Team Switzerland (Silvana Tirinzoni & Alina Paetz) - Binia Feltscher kept Switzerland on top of women's curling with their fantastic world title win in Swift Current.  While Feltscher's season appears complete (and why not end on top), the Swiss curling dominance looks to continue.  Both Tirinzoni and Paetz have some unsettled business to attend to before this season wraps up.  Tirinzoni has been the most consistent Swiss team on tour this season and has to wonder what could have been had she won the Swiss final instead of Feltscher.  Tirinzoni is also the only team to defeat Homan in a championship final this year at the season opening Tour Challenge.  Paetz also slipped up against Feltscher in the Swiss playoffs and was unable to defend her world championship.  Paetz has had a tough season, struggling a bit to live up to her now-former title of current World Champion.  She has the game and confidence to go shot for shot with any team here.  Don't discount a continued Swiss dominance on the ice come this weekend.

The Dark Horse

Team Steve Laycock - Ever get the feeling poor Steve Laycock doesn't get the flashy media attention and support from fans that he deserves?  Whenever we enter a grand slam event the focus on the men's side surrounds teams like Koe, Gushue, McEwen, Jacobs, Edin etc.  How often do you hear fans or media say "Watch out for Team Laycock this week?"  I don't think any team flies more under the radar than these guys.  I also don't think they mind one bit.  This team is still searching for their 1st grand slam title but they have been getting closer and closer over the past few seasons.  A runner-up finish at last year's Canadian Open and semi-final appearances at this year's Masters and Elite 10 shows this team could be due for their slam breakthrough.  The biggest distraction for this team to avoid though is all the rumour / gossip about Pat Simmons coming back to Saskatchewan and what that could mean for the future of this team.  If they can avoid the white noise in the background and focus on the action on the ice, a nice playoff run isn't out of the question.  Sidenote: if you follow Team Laycock you would have seen them tweeting out a pic of their fancy new kicks for the event.  Looking might sexy as #TeamOranje I must admit!  Hmmm now to find a way to get hooked up with a pair...you reading this #TwineTime fam member and Mr. Smiles Kirk Muyres?  :)

Team Erica Brown - There is something about this team I cannot help but like.  Maybe it was actually meeting them in Swift Current and seeing how much fun they had on and off the ice.  Maybe it was how they dealt with adversity during the World Championships (see game vs. Canada) or how they started off slow but were able to turn it on and finish strong.  Whatever it is, I don't underestimate this team as much as perhaps I have in the past.  They have quietly put together a strong season on tour, qualifying in 5 of their 6 events.  Similar to Mr. Laycock above, I don't think alot of people will be talking about them given the field they are competing against but I also think this will work to their advantage.  Head down, focus on the games at hand, pick up some wins....playoff time!  Seems simple right?


Projected Standings

Men

Pool A                                                             Pool B

Team Koe              4-1                                    Team Gushue            4-1
Team Jacobs          4-1                                    Team Laycock           3-2
Team Edin             3-2                                    Team McEwen          3-2
Team Howard        2-3                                    Team Shuster            2-3        
Team Carruthers    2-3                                    Team Murdoch          2-3
Team Thomas        0-5                                    Team Epping             1-4

Women

Pool A                                                             Pool B

Team Homan         5-0                                    Team Jones                3-2
Team Tirinzoni      4-1                                    Team Muirhead         3-2
Team Brown          2-3                                    Team Sweeting          3-2
Team Fleury          2-3                                     Team Sidorova          2-3
Team Carey           1-4                                     Team Rocque            2-3
Team Einarson      1-4                                     Team Paetz                2-3

Qualifiers

Men - Koe, Gushue, Jacobs, Laycock, McEwen, Edin, Shuster, Murdoch

Women - Homan, Tirinzoni, Jones, Muirhead, Sweeting, Sidorova, Rocque, Brown

MEN'S CHAMPIONSHIP:  Team Jacobs over Team Koe - It is tough to bet against the 2016 World Champions right now.  However, based on pure motivation alone, I would give this final match up advantage to Team Jacobs.  Jacobs is the defending champion and has struggled on tour this year.  They were disappointed with their Brier finish.  They are currently one of the odd men out in qualifying for the Champions Cup.  This is a perfect opportunity to salvage their season by collecting another grand slam title, defending their championship, knocking off the newly crowned world champs and earning that final Champions Cup spot.  In the grand scheme, what is Koe playing for?  Just another title I suppose.  If anything I think perhaps the heavy curling schedule might catch up to Team Koe come playoff weekend.  How many months, weeks, games can these 4 players go curling at this high of a level without a slip up?  I think Jacobs is ready to pounce on them at the perfect, and most opportune, time.


WOMEN'S CHAMPIONSHIP:  Team Homan over Team Tirinzoni - Team Tirinzoni is the only team to defeat Team Homan on the grand slam circuit this year.  But this was way back at the opening Tour Challenge event....and this is a different Team Homan.  Homan is chasing history and what better way to break into the history books then defeating the one team who denied you a perfect grand slam season?  Tirinzoni will put up a fight though and has a lot to prove as well this week in keeping the Swiss winning streak alive and well.  If we get our Tour Challenge Championship rematch, it's a win for curling fans all around the world.


If you are in or around the Toronto area this weekend I highly recommend heading down to the classic Mattamy Athletic Centre (formally known as historic Maple Leaf Gardens) and check out some outstanding grand slam curling action.  Stay tuned as well to the #TwineTime blog for a preview (with predictions) of the World Mixed Doubles Curling Championship beginning this weekend in Sweden.  With mixed doubles added to the 2018 Olympic roster, many curling fans and federations will have their sights focused on this event.