Who Am I?

My photo

I like sports....lots of sports...all sports!  Follow my blog as I talk about sports....if you like sports of course

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

Sunday, 17 April 2016

#BetweenTheSheets: World Mixed Doubles Rocks Karlstad, Sweden
A record 42 nations begin the quest for Olympic qualification

This blog has discussed #growthesport all season with respect to #curling and this preview blog post could be the best representation supporting the hashtag.  The World Mixed Doubles Curling Championships have hit the ice in Karlstad, Sweden.  With mixed doubles becoming a new discipline in the Olympics, the opportunity for more nations and more athletes to compete at the Olympics grows.

Before we get too far ahead of ourselves though, let's talk about the specific discipline of mixed doubles curling.  Many may not be familiar with the change in rules and format for the sport.  Here is a brief overview of what you will see when watching mixed doubles curling:

  • Mixed doubles is contested between teams of two, one male and one female.  Each team will be given 5 rocks to throw per end.  The end does start with 2 pre-positioned stones resulting in 6 total stones per color in play per end.
  • One player will throw stones 1 and 5 while the other will throw stones 2, 3 and 4.  Players can switch positions in between ends and both players are allowed to sweep at anytime.  Some teams may employ a strategy of having one player hold the broom in the house, effectively resulting in the throwing player to also sweep their own stone.
  • For the pre-positioned stones, the team with hammer will have their stone placed at the back of the four foot (red in image).  The team without hammer will have a rock positioned as a centre guard (yellow).
  • Teams are not allowed to hit and remove any stones, whether their own or opposition, until the 4th rock of the end.  
  • Each game is 8 ends in length, with extra ends required to ensure no ties.  Both teams are provided a total thinking time of 22 minutes per game (meaning the clock stops once the thrown rock is released).
  • New for 2016 is the addition of a #PowerPlay (see side picture).  If used, the Power Play moves the pre-positioned stones out to one of the sides resulting in a corner guard and the rock in house buried behind above the tee line.  Each team is allowed one Power Play per game and can only be used when they have hammer.  The Power Play cannot be used in extra ends however.

Ok, got all that down?  Mixed doubles is a fast paced machine of a game usually with lots of offense and scoring.  It is not uncommon to see teams score 3 or 4 points an end.  It is also not uncommon to see teams take early 4-0 or 5-0 leads in a game and still end up losing.  If you enjoy lots of rocks in play, high scoring and #noleadissafe, mixed doubles curling is right for you!

So now that you have some understanding of the rules, let's take a quick look at what to expect at #wmdcc2016:

  • This year will be the first opportunity for nations to collect Olympic qualification points.  At the upcoming 2018 Winter Olympics, 8 nations will compete for gold.  As South Korea is the Olympic host nation, they receive an automatic spot, meaning 7 spots are left up for grabs.
  • Nations will only have this year's world championship and next year's world championship (held in Lethbridge, AB, Canada) to collect enough points to qualify.  Unlike men's and women's curling for the Olympics, there will be no last chance Olympic qualifying events.  At the end of next year's world championship, the 7 nations with the highest combined points (removing South Korea from the standings) will be Olympic bound.  Only teams that finish in the Top 12 will receive qualification points (i.e. Gold - 14 points, Silver - 12 points, Bronze - 10 points, 4 through 12 - 9 points to 1 point).
  • 2016 will feature a record number of nations competing: 42!  Can you think of any other sport where 42 nations are competing for Olympic points and a world title at the same time...in the same week?  The amount of nations entered proves the addition of mixed doubles in the Olympics will only help #growthesport in countries around the world.  This year's event will welcome 1st time competitors from Israel, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Serbia and Qatar!
  • 2016 will mark the 9th year the World Mixed Doubles Curling Championships have been contested.  The top of the podium has been dominated by 1 nation: Switzerland.  In the past 8 years, Switzerland has won 5 championships.  However, they are being challenged by relative competitive newcomer Hungary, who come to Sweden as the defending champions.  In fact Hungary has won 2 titles in the past 3 years (2013, 2015).  The only other nation to win a world title is Russia (2010).  
  • Don't discount host nation Sweden though.  Sweden enters the championships ranked #1 in the world...and for good reason.  Sure Sweden has never won a world title but they have played in the world final in 4 straight years (2012-2015).  As the host nation, will this finally be the year Sweden lands on top of the podium and not as runner-up?
  • To further support the #growthesport mentality, look at a few of the other nations that have found the podium within the past 8 years:  Finland (Silver, 2008), New Zealand (Silver, 2010), Austria (Bronze, 2012), Spain (Bronze, 2014).  Not exactly nations considered curling super-powers right?  But this discipline is allowing more nations to excel in the sport!
  • Notice anyone missing from the list above?  Where is Canada?  The USA?  Norway?  Scotland?  China?  Japan?  The nations we are used to seeing in the playoffs and on the podiums at men's and women's world championships.  The 6 nations I just listed have a combined 3 bronze medals (Canada 2009, China 2010, Norway 2015).  These results show, right now, anyone and everyone has an equal shot at making the Olympics!
  • Sweden is the #1 ranked team in the world entering this event.  But who is right behind them and who are the nations ready to take over top spot?  Here is the list of ranked nations #2 - #10: Hungary, Switzerland, Norway, Russia, Canada, Czech Republic, USA, Spain, Austria.  To see the full ranking of nations, click HERE.  Where does your country land?  
We have an understanding of the sport, right?  We have some background info on the history of the championships and what to expect in 2016, right?  Let's get to the fun part: #TourLifePredictions.  This is going to be a bit difficult to predict, given the vast majority of nations competing and with many nations fielding athletes who are not regularly featured on tour.  However, this will not deter #TwineTime....I like a challenge.  This preview will be a bit different than my past event previews.  Rather than provide an overview, I will do a quick breakdown by group before listing my playoff qualifiers and podium finish.  Here we go....

World Mixed Doubles Curling Championship

Karlstad, Sweden

2015 Champions:  Hungary (Dorottya Palancsa and Zsolt Kiss)

Format:  42 nations divided into 6 pools of 7 nations for a round robin.  The top overall 16 nations advance to the playoffs.  Note because Olympic qualification points are on the line, the format of 8 playoff teams in the past has been increased to 16.  In addition, playoff losing nations will still play to determine final rankings and points.  

Pool A

Team Hungary
This should be the most competitive pool...at the top anyways.  Here we find defending champions Hungary (Palancsa and Kiss) paired up with dominant Switzerland (Yves Hess and Flurina Kobler).  These two nations should comfortably advance to the playoff round.  Latvia and Slovakia could be dark horse qualifiers though.

Favorites:  Hungary, Switzerland
Watch Out For:  Latvia
Dark Horse:  Slovakia
The Rest:  Belgium, Bulgaria, Poland

Pool B

Team Austria
Here you should see many familiar names to the world curling tour.  Two-time world women's champion Andrea Schopp is representing Germany (with brother Rainer Schopp).  Finnish women's champion Oona Kauste will represent Finland (with Tomi Rantamaki).  Former Austrian women's champ Karina Toth will join junior champ Sebastian Wunderer to represent Austria.  This group also has the #1 ranked team in the world, and host nation, Sweden as well as the 2018 Olympic hosts South Korea.  To say this could be the group of death is an understatement.  There are easily 5 nations here with playoff hopes going into the event.  Someone is leaving this group disappointed and well behind the Olympic 8-ball at the end of the round robin.  This group also welcomes newcomer Lithuania...yikes!

Favorites:  Austria, Sweden, Finland
Watch Out For:  Germany
Dark Horse:  South Korea
The Rest:  Lithuania, Slovenia

Pool C

Team Norway
The group of opportunity!  None of the nations competing in this group have really found decent success, if any, at the world mixed level.  A wide open group means if a team can get hot, get on a role and win a few games early they could find themselves in prime position for a playoff run and some major Olympic points.  Norway may have a slight advantage on the world stage with women's champ Kristin Skaslien competing.  England will be lead by Team Fowler (Ben and Anna), both of whom are familiar to world tour events in Europe.  And don't forget Dilsat Yildiz, junior women's champ from Turkey.  Recently Yildiz brought a 4th place finish at the Euro Women's B Division.  And don't underestimate Japan, led by power coach J.D. Lind.  Lind did just coach the Japanese women to a silver medal finish at the recent world women's curling championship.  Welcome another newcomer to this group: Luxembourg.

Favorites:  Norway, England
Watch Out For:  Japan
Dark Horse:  Turkey
The Rest:  Kazakhstan, Romania, Luxembourg

Pool D

Team Canada
Here we find perennial curling powerhouse Canada, represented by national bronze medal winners Marliese Kasner and Dustin Kalthoff.  I will spare the blogging world my thoughts on the Canadian championships and how we ended up sending our bronze medal winners to this event...for now (hint: all about the money $$$$).  Anyways, Kasner does bring a wealth of experience to the ice though and is a former world junior champion.  On paper this looks like a slam dunk group for Canada but I think it will be more difficult than many expect.  Italy, China and Australia have experience of last year and will be looking to improve.  Ireland has seen strong growth in the sport over the past few season, much thanks to their world men's senior championship title in 2012.  The only thing certain might be a bottom of the group placing for newcomer Serbia.

Favorite:  Canada
Watch Out For:   Italy, China, Australia
Dark Horse:  Ireland, France 
The Rest:  Serbia

Pool E

Team USA
Similar to Group D, here we find another North American team (USA) who should be the overwhelming favorites to win the group.  USA is represented by Joe Polo and Tabitha Peterson.  Polo won a bronze medal for USA at the 2006 Olympics.  Peterson won a bronze medal for USA at the 2010 World Junior Championships.  Both Polo and Peterson have tones of tour experience as well, which should give them a strong upper hand this week.  Team USA has never found a podium in 8 years though....they need a strong result here to have a shot at the Olympics.  New Zealand should pose the biggest challenge with Denmark also being a team to watch for.  This group also welcomes newcomer Israel.

Favorite:  USA
Watch Out For:  Denmark, New Zealand  
Dark Horse:  Belarus, Spain
The Rest:  Netherlands, Israel

Pool F

Team Estonia
Another group of opportunity.  Similar to Group C, Group F finds a few nations still looking to get their slider wet on the mixed doubles ice and find some traction.  The Czech Republic and Russia should be the pre-event group favorites, given past performances and the willingness of their national federations to invest in the sport from the beginning.  However, their 3 European counterparts (Estonia, Scotland, Wales) will be no slouch competition.  Scotland will be lead by newly crowned World Junior Men's Champion Bruce Mouat and joined with fellow Scottish junior champion Gina Aitken.  Estonia could be the ultimate surprise nation here though.  They finished with a 7-2 record last year and made the quarterfinals.  Imagine Estonia competing at the 2018 Winter Olympics in curling?  It could happen folks!  This group welcomes our final newcomer Qatar as well as our only South American entry Brazil.

Favorites:  Czech Republic, Russia
Watch Out For:  Scotland, Estonia
Dark Horse:  Wales
The Rest:  Brazil, Qatar

Qualifiers

Top 16:  Hungary, Switzerland, Austria, Sweden, Finland, Norway, Japan, Turkey, Canada, China, USA, Denmark, New Zealand, Estonia, Czech Republic, Scotland

Top 8:  Hungary, Switzerland, Austria, Sweden, Canada, USA, Czech Republic, Estonia

WORLD MIXED DOUBLES CURLING CHAMPIONSHIP GOLD:  Hungary over Austria - The Hungarian team has the most experience of all 42 nations competing this week and are 2-time world champions.  They are comfortable with the format and should have a huge advantage when it comes to overall strategy in close games.  With Olympic qualification points on the line this year, expect this team to come out firing even stronger than before....plus they want that #1 world ranking they feel they deserve.  Austria is my wildcard finalist team.  Toth and Wunderer are both great curlers and have been trying to #growthesport in Austria for a few seasons.  Toth has been to European and World Championships.  Wunderer is an up and coming junior who can bring Austrian men's curling up to the elite status in Europe.  Both Hungary and Austria are not considered power house curling nations; however, by the end of this championship they will be at the front of the pack towards locking up an Olympic spot.


World Mixed Doubles Curling Championship Bronze:  Canada over USA - Both North American nations are starting to invest more time and money towards the discipline now that it is an Olympic sport.  Stronger results mean greater opportunity for funding towards the sport overall...something both national governing boards want to see happen.  Neither Canada nor the USA have ever really excelled at mixed doubles on the world stage but this is the perfect time to start.  I honestly don't see either nation winning the championship or being in the final but a deep playoff run is not out of the question given the resume of the teams.  While both will come up short in the semi-final, a nice North American rivalry match-up for the final spot on the podium will be nice to see.

There you have it rock heads and stoners.  My attempt at handicapping a very competitive, and slightly wide open, world mixed doubles curling championship.  My picks could end up being WAY off base....or I may just find my podium picks right on target.  Who knows?!  What I do know is if you are a curling fan, new to the sport or a seasoned veteran, take some time this week to watch these athletes and these developing nations compete.  Check out LIVE video and scoring at World Curling Federation event home page.  And, as always, share your thoughts on #wmdcc2016 in the comments section below or on twitter with yours truly.  

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.

Thursday, 14 April 2016

We Want The Cup...Bring On The #StanleyCup Playoffs
#BecauseItsTheCup excitement ready to take over


Don't you love this time of the year?  Spring!  As a sports fan there may not be any better time to get enriched in sports culture.  March Madness has just wrapped up.  The NBA season is coming to a close.  The MLB season is just beginning (which is the best time to get excited as a fan).  Oh...and of course NHL Playoffs are set to start.  What a great 6-8 weeks stretch we get sports fans!!!

Last season the playoffs began just after I moved to Calgary.  The timing was perfect.  I was in a new city and my new home was at a heightened state of excitement with the Flames in the playoffs.  I was even fortunate enough to attend 3 of the Flames 5 home playoff games.  It was my first time experiencing playoff hockey action (at the NHL level anyway) in person.  And I loved every second of it!!

Of course this year will be a bit more sombre around Calgary.  Well across Canada to be honest.  No Canadian teams qualified for the playoffs this season.  Almost unheard of right?  Shocking to say the least.  This is only the second time in the history of the league we have witnessed this heartbreak, with the other being in 1970!  But before you get all down on Canada let's also remember a majority of players skating on the ice for the playoffs still bleed the Red and White and proudly support the Maple Leaf on a daily basis.  While the physical Canadian cities may be absent from the playoffs, there will be no shortage of Canadian talent to cheer for if you find your team already eliminated.

I love the opening round of the Stanley Cup playoffs.  Round 1 usually produces some of the best games throughout the entire Road to the Stanley Cup...and often sees the most upsets.  Last year was the first year I went full-on with round by round predictions.  If you want a reminder on how I did in the opening round (pretty darn good by the way), check it out HERE.  One note I made leading up to my predictions was saying upsets would happen out West and great games (with no upsets) would reign supreme out East.  I'd call that 2 for 2 as all the higher seeds prevailed in the East and 3 of the 4 lower seeds won out in the West.

Maybe last season was a fluke you say?  Let's look at 2014.  Again, 3 of the 4 lower seeds prevailed out West and 3 of the 4 higher seeds won out East.  Hmmm....I'd start calling that a trend wouldn't you?  And how is this for a mind boggle?  Even though the top West teams seem to often lose in the opening round, West is still best when it comes to hoisting Lord Stanley.  The West has won the last 4 Stanley Cups (Chicago and LA both taking home two).  Over the past 10 seasons, the East has only prevailed 3 times (Carolina 2006, Pittsburgh 2009, Boston 2011).  If these trends teach us anything it should be to pick chalk out East, mess it up out West but know even the best in the East will fall to the middle of the West in the end.

Ok, enough of my ranting and raving.  Let's get on to the fun part.  The predictions!  Let's see if #TwineTime can stay on the ice long enough to score some points this opening round.

EASTERN (Chalk Talk) CONFERENCE

Metro Division

(1) Washington Capitals vs. (WC) Philadelphia Flyers

The Capitals are your President Cup winners this season and the overwhelming favourite to represent the East in the Stanley Cup Finals.  Hmmm...haven't we heard this before?  Back in 2009-10 the Caps were also Presidents Cup winners and strong favourites.  That team flamed out in the opening round to Montreal.  Can the Flyers pull the same result this season?  Highly unlikely.  From Ovi to Holtby, this Capitals team is the complete package and the Flyers will be lucky to stay on the same ice with them for an entire game...let alone an entire series.  This will be the 5th time these two teams have met in the playoffs and the first since 2008.  They have split the series so far but the Flyers have won the last two meetings.

#TwineTime pick:  Capitals over Flyers - 5 games

(2) Pittsburgh Penguins vs. (3) New York Rangers

Well it wouldn't be April without a Penguins - Rangers playoff series would it?  Ugh, as a Pens fan I am kind of over seeing this matchup every year.  But perhaps this is the year of the Penguin!!  The Rangers have eliminated the Penguins the previous two years, with last year seeing all 5 games decided by 1 goal.  It was a closer series than the final 4-1 series victory looked.  This is a different season though and the Pens are rolling right now.  They look to be the only team in the East capable to stopping Washington.  Crosby has been on a roll over the past month.  If Fleury can get rid of the skeleton's in his closet from past year's playoff performances, the Penguins should roll here...assuming Fleury even plays.  The Rangers limped into the playoffs this year and barely held onto this seed.  During the final month of the season it looked as though state rival Islanders or even the Flyers would pass the Rangers in the standings.  This will be the 7th season these teams have met in the playoffs with the Penguins winning the first 4 and losing the previous 2.

#TwineTime pick:  Penguins over Rangers - 6 games

Atlantic Division

(1) Florida Panthers vs. (WC) New York Islanders

Welcome back to playoff relevance Florida Panthers!  I for one have missed you.  The Panthers was actually the first Starter jacket I ever owned.  You remember Starter jackets right?  Almost every kid in Canada owned one.  I got mine when the Panthers were an expansion franchise.  Part of my hockey heart still belongs with Rat Pack!  Oh the days of throwing rats on the ice at Panthers games....how exciting.  Anyhooo....happy to see Florida back in the playoffs and as Atlantic Division Champions.  Don't let the lack of playoff appearances fool you though.  Sure this will only be the fifth playoff appearance for the franchise but this is a good team.  All eyes will be on Jaromir Jagr as he continues to turn back the clock for perhaps one last shot at hoisting the cup.  In contrast, the Islanders will be making their 24th franchise playoff appearance this season.  Last season the Isles pushed the favoured Capitals to 7 games before being eliminated in the opening round.  Can they finally pull the upset?  These teams have never met in the playoffs and we will see the end to one futility streak here as neither team has won a playoff matchup since the 1990's (Panthers 1996, Islanders 1993)

#TwineTime pick:  Panthers over Islanders - 7 games

(2) Tampa Bay Lightning vs. (3) Detroit Red Wings

Similar to the 2 vs 3 matchup in the Metro Division, we get a playoff rematch from a year ago in the 2vs3 matchup in the Atlantic.  Last season the Bolts eliminated the Wings in 7 games en route to the Stanley Cup final (only to lose to Chicago).  Could we see history repeating?  Tampa Bay will be trying to duplicate the history of the Pittsburgh Penguins in losing the Stanley Cup final one year and then returning and winning it the following season.  But it will not be easy.  Captain Steven Stamkos is out for the playoffs...and that is just one of a number of injuries depleting this team.  The Wings are not flashy.  They are not overly exciting to watch.  But they are consistent and should be able to take advantage of a weakened Lightning team.  My heart says Tampa....my head say Detroit.

#TwineTime pick:  Red Wings over Lightning - 6 games

WESTERN (Upset City?) CONFERENCE

Central Divsion

(1) Dallas Stars vs. (WC) Minnesota Wild

I am starting to think there is not a more dangerous team to play in the 1st round of the playoffs then the Minnesota Wild...especially when they enter the playoffs as an underdog wildcard.  Since the current "new" playoff format was introduced, the Wild are undefeated in the opening round as a wildcard team.  In 2014 they upset Colorado in 7 games.  Last year they upset St. Louis in 6 games.  They may have met their match this year though.  The Stars look like a team on a mission all season and a team of destiny.  This team can score and score often....finding the back of the net a league-leading 267 times this year.  Sure they will give up a few goals as well but when you score 5 and give up 3...it still adds up to a W!  This will be Dallas' second playoff appearance in 8 years (last 2014).  This will also be the 1st ever meeting between the two division rivals in the playoffs.  Could this be the year the #StarsAlign in Dallas?

#TwineTime pick:  Stars over Wild - 5 games

(2) St. Louis Blues vs. (3) Chicago Blackhawks

Doesn't this look a bit familiar?  Chicago sitting as a #3 seed, starting the playoffs on the road yet seemingly being dubbed the favourite to win the West?  St. Louis sitting as a higher seed, being considered the underdog and many expecting them to once again crash and burn in the opening round?  You almost have to be out of your mind to bet against Chicago.  Or bet on St. Louis.  This will be the 12th playoff meeting between these clubs and Chicago holds a one-sided 8-3 series advantage.  The last time they played?  2014.  When the Blues were a #2 seed.  And the Hawks were a #3 seed.  And the Hawks were defending champions.  Chi-Town won then in 6 games....#historyrepeating

#TwineTime pick:  Blackhawks over Blues - 6 games

Pacific Division

(1) Anaheim Ducks vs. (WC) Nashville Predators

The pre-season favourite who looked to have one skate in the grave at the close of 2015.  Since that short Christmas break, the Anaheim Ducks have been the hottest team in the league.  What a difference turning over a calendar page can make?!  The Ducks had ONLY 12 wins as 2015 ended....but 2016 has seen them collect a league-leading 34 wins.  A nice run up the standings from last to Pacific Division champions.  Add in the fact the Ducks are still feeling the sting of last season's Western Conference finals loss to Chicago makes this team extra dangerous.  Nashville is a tough team and will not be afraid to get physical in this series.  Their hopes however rest on netminder Pekka Rinne.  Rinne has had a below-average season by his standards and if he cannot win at least 1-2 games alone on his play, and stopping the Ducks power play, the Preds could be golfing quickly.  The one plus for Nashville: they do own a 1-0 H2H playoff record with the Ducks (2011).

#TwineTime pick:  Ducks over Predators - 6 games

(2) LA Kings vs. (3) San Jose Sharks

Nothing beats a good old division rival.  Nothing beats a good old state rivalry.  Welcome to the opening round of the playoffs and, again, we get a classic 2 vs 3 match.  This series could be steal the show for the opening round and should go the distance.  LA is continuing to try and build a dynasty in an attempt to win their 3rd Stanley Cup in 5 years.  San Jose is trying to prove they can actually win in the playoffs.  Jonathan Quick will be a key to success for the Kings in this series.  If he continues his stellar playoff performances, he alone can steal 2 to 3 games alone.  San Jose, on the other hand, was expected to have a down season yet here they are with a legit shot at making a deep playoff run.  The Sharks will need a big series from their main men: Thornton, Marleau and Pavelski.  But the real key could come from playoff rookie Martin Jones.  Either way, expect a tough series....a long series....and some #BadBlood!  This will be the 4th time in 6 years these teams have met in the playoffs with the Kings winning the last two meetings (2013, 2014).

#TwineTime pick:  Kings over Sharks - 7 games

Share your thoughts on my predictions and don't be shy to share your's as well either in the comments below or hit me up on twitter.  If you really want to test your hockey knowledge, accept the #BeatTheBlogger Challenge and join my #TwineTime NHL Bracket Challenge Group.  See if you can outwit, outpredict and outlast this sports blogger.  Most importantly, enjoy the opening round action.  If past history teaches us anything it's that come round two....we will begging for the excitement of round one!

Also, don't forget to come back the #TwineTime homepage often to vote YOUR team as the favourite to win the Stanley Cup this year.  Vote now....vote often....vote daily!  Support your team....or at least the team you selected in your bracket.  Voting will remain open for the full run of the 2016 Stanley Cup Playoffs.

#BecauseItsTheCup