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Wednesday, 8 February 2017

#BetweenTheSheets: #TeamUpset Taking 
Provincial Playdowns?
Can the favourites survive or are we in store for more surprises this season?


Well my #curling friends, I have missed you I must admit.  It has been almost a month since we have connected.  While I took a much needed vacation to the Land of OZ for three weeks, the curling rocks continued to run, spin and freeze their way all over the house.  The beaches, hot sun (boy did I burn!), Great Barrier Reef and Australian Open experience was #BucketList worthy without a doubt but it is time to get back in the hack and put some points on the curling scoreboard.

Much has occurred during my little blogging hiatus.  We crowned new grand slam champions at The Canadian Open.  A few high profile #wct events took place around the world.  Canadian junior curling champions were crowned.  The Winter Universiade handed out curling medals.  The Brier field started to take shape.  AND the Scotties field was completed (more on that later though).

As is custom with the #TwineTime blog, and with much respect to Manitoba's own Jason Gunnlaugson, let's take a quick #GunnerRunback at what has happened over the past month of curling action:


  • The Meridian Canadian Open perhaps began the Brad Gushue welcome back celebration party that the team hopes to continue for the next few months.  In only Gushue's second event of the season, The Goo led his team to a #gsoc title defeating the #SwedishViking Nik Edin in the championship final.  One has to think this is a HUGE momentum and confidence boost for Gushue heading into the Brier (of course he won NFLD, more on that below).  Nice SF results for John Morris and Brad Jacobs though as well heading into provincial playdowns.
  • North Battleford also welcomed the newest #gsoc women's champion to the fold, another #TeamUpset leader as well, when Alberta's Casey Scheidegger defeated Switzerland's Silvana Tirinzoni to claim the Canadian Open title.  #TwineTime has been calling Scheidegger a team to watch out for all season and they proved the belonged with the big dogs in winning the grand slam title.  Sweden's Anna Hasselborg and fellow Albertan Val Sweeting rounded out the Final Four.  Interesting to note, this was the first slam event Rachel Homan did not reach the playoffs.  Also interesting to note, none of the playoff teams at the slam will be competing at the Scotties.  Weird fact or interesting argument for #growthesport?  You decide!
  • Tom Brewster sent the home nation fans home happy when he defeated Norway's Steffen Walstad to win the Perth Masters in Perth, Scotland.  Fellow Norwegian Thomas Ulsrud and German Alexander Baumann (with former Canadian junior champion Ryan Sherrard playing lead) reached the SF.
  • Alina Paetz made a statement heading into the Switzerland women's championships when she defeated Silvana Tirinzoni to claim the International Bernese Ladies Cup in Bern, Switzerland.  As expected, the race for the Swiss ladies title will be a competitive one between Paetz, Tirinzoni and defending world champion Binia Feltscher.  China's Bingyu Wang defeated European Champion Victorya Moiseeva's Russian rink to claim third place.  Denmark's Lene Nielson defeated Germany's Andrea Schoepp to claim the consolation title.
  • Steffen Walstad continued his late season push for a world championship spot when he defeated Scotland's Kyle Smith in Hamburg, Germany to win the German Masters.  China's Rui Liu and Russia's Alexey Timofeev were SF finishers.
  • Alina Paetz almost went back-to-back with championship wins but fell just short in the final of the Glynhill Ladies International in Glasgow, Scotland.  The home nation had plenty to cheer for though when Eve Muirhead returned to the winning circle in claiming the title over Paetz.  Sweden's Margaretha Sigfridsson and up and coming Swiss team to watch Ursi Hegner (with former Team Schoepp vice Imogen Oona Lehmann at vice) reached the SF stage.
  • In what is becoming one of the most talked about events of the curling season, the Ed Werenich Golden Wrench Classic in Tempe, Arizona saw Mike McEwen defeat Adam Casey (formerly known as Team Meachem....see the #TwineTime interview with vice Catlin Schneider for more info) in the final.  Matt Dunstone and Bruce Korte rounded out the Final Four in the sun.
  • Canada has crowned it's representatives for the World Junior Curling Championships following the conclusion of the Canadian Junior Curling Championships in Esquimalt, B.C.  The home province celebrated a championship victory when B.C.'s Tyler Tardi unleashed the #TardiParty all across Canada defeating Ontario's Matthew Hall for the championship.  Northern Ontario's Tanner Horgan, last year's runner-up, finished third.  This year also ended the Manitoba domination win streak at 4 when JT Ryan failed to make the final playoff.  The Tardi win is B.C's fifth junior men's title (Alberta leads the way with 16 followed by Saskatchewan with 14).  The women's championship went out West as well when Alberta's Kristen Streifel (formally competing under home province Saskatchewan in the past) knocked off previously undefeated Ontario's Hailey Armstrong in the final.  Northern Ontario's Krysta Burns took home the bronze medal.  The Alberta victory was the 9th ladies title for the province, second behind Saskatchewan's 11 titles.
  • Finally the Winter Universiade curling competition wrapped up this week in Almaty, Kazakhstan.  Canada's Kelsey Rocque proved the decision to skip this year's Alberta provincial tournament to compete in Almaty was the right call when she took home the gold medal defeating Russia's Victorya Moiseeva (also the current European Champions).  Sweden's Isabelle Wrana (also a team #TwineTime identified to start the season as an up-and-comer) took home the bronze after defeating Switzerland's Elena Stern.  For the men, Scotland's Bruce Mouat represented Great Britain to perfection when he defeated Sweden's Gustav Eskilsson for the gold medal.  Mouat would finish the event with a perfect 11-0 record!  Norway's Steffen Walstad, the same Steffan Walstad mentioned a few times above, continued to have a terrific start to 2017 when he claimed the bronze medal over the Czech Republic's Lukas Klima (another team to watch in the future).

Ok so maybe that became more of a #GunnerDraw than a #GunnerRunback but there was just too much action to get caught up on...and some very exciting (and interesting) results to discuss.  Besides the excitement within our own Canadian borders, is anyone else a bit intrigued by some of the results around the world?  The Swiss women continue to show why all Swiss teams should not be taken lightly on the ice.  Up and coming men's teams from Norway, Germany and the Czech Republic should prove to be exciting for those nations moving forward.  Similar for women's teams from Sweden and Switzerland.  As we continue to talk about #growthesport in this blog, seeing the emergence of some of these teams around the world gets you excited for the future!  I didn't even dive into the upset in Japan last week when Chiaki Matsumura defeated perennial powerhouse Japanese teams Ayumi Ogasawara (SF) and Satsuki Fujisawa (F) to claim the Japanese Women's Championship.  The #TeamUpset brand doesn't just confine itself to North America friends!

With a month's worth of results on the ice, you know we have to update the #PowerRankings now right?  Grand slam results, tour results...so much going on.  I should preface these rankings though with one key component.  I am basing these rankings on results on tour, outside of provincial and national playdown results.  These will be the final #PowerRankings until the #wct season continues at the beginning of March.  At that time, I will incorporate provincial/national results into the conversation for Power Rankings positions.  But, seeing as some have competed in playdowns and some have not (including world teams), it only remains fair to take the body of work through the #wct season as the consideration factors.

Without further adieu, here are the updated #PowerRankings:


MEN

1.  Team Edin (LR: 1)
2.  Team Gushue (4)
3.  Team Jacobs (3)
4.  Team Carruthers (2)
5.  Team Mouat (NR)

Hon. Mention:  Team Ulsrud, Team McEwen, Team Morris, Team Walstad

Gushue's grand slam win vaulted him back up to the #2 ranking position.  Yes he defeated #KingNiklas in the final but the Swede still reached the final of another slam, coupled with his two slam wins already this season, makes him a cemented #1 team in the world right now.  The team is consistent with results and should already be the favourite to claim the world title in Edmonton later this year.  Jacobs reached the SF to hold onto his #3 ranking while a disappointing slam result for Carruthers sees them dip a bit.  The coveted number 5 spot was a tough one but I thought we should reward the young Scot Bruce Mouat on his unblemished record claiming the Universaide title.  Similar thought process in moving Team Walstad into the HM category.  A tour win, runner-up finish and Universaide bronze medal are pretty impressive results within a 4 week span I would say!

WOMEN

1.  Team Homan (LR: 1)
2.  Team Hasselborg (4)
3.  Team Scheidegger (NR)
4.  Team J. Jones (2)
5.  Team Tirinzoni (HM)

Hon. Mention:  Team Paetz, Team Muirhead, Team Flaxey, Team Einarson, Team Moiseeva

This was a tough call.  Homan missed her first slam playoff round.  Hasselborg reached the SF.  Scheidegger won.  Tirinzoni reached back to back finals.  Paetz won an event and was runner-up.  Muirhead won.  Moiseeva is looking poised to be a threat at the upcoming world's possibly.  And never discount Jennifer Jones.  What is a blogger to do?  Put them all in a hat and pick out a name?  One has to fall back on the strongest qualification for these power rankings: consistency!  Homan and Hasselborg continue to be threats in every event over the entire season.  I also went with the similar formula for #TeamUpset grand slam winners in moving Scheidegger to the prestigious #3 spot, similar to Flaxey and Einarson after their slam wins earlier this season.  As for the Tirinzoni/Paetz/Feltscher trifecta, this should be fun to watch sort itself out for a world's spot.

Now we welcome the month of February rock heads and stoners!  It's playdown month!!  Time to crown provincial and national champions and book some spots in the coveted World Championships.  Within the mighty Canadian borders, our national women's championship, the Scotties Tournament of Hearts, has a full field ready to go starting February 16 in St. Catherines, Ontario.  Here is a quick provincial/territorial playdown summary of who punched their ticket to this year's Scotties:

Yukon: Sarah Koltun - After taking a year off for education purposes, Sarah Koltun returns to the Scotties field.  Koltun's last appearance was in 2015, the infamous first year of pre-qualification when her team went 0-2 and was instantly eliminated.  She will once again compete in pre-qualification and will be looking to have a better result and experience than her last Scotties appearance.

Northwest Territories: Kerry Galusha - Galusha will be making her 14th Scotties appearance after collecting another NWT title.  Galusha will once again be in the pre-qualification event and will be looking to bring back #PolarPower to the Scotties field after just missing the past two seasons.

Nunavut: Geneva Chislett - Chislett will be making her second, and Nunavut's second-ever, appearance at the Scotties.  Chislett made history last year winning the very first Scotties game for Nunavut in the opening draw of pre-qualification over B.C.  She may be in tough to replicate that result this season but collecting another win on the arena ice would be a great #growthesport story for the young territory.

British Columbia: Marla Mallett - Mallett dominated the round robin posting a 6-1 record.  She defeated Lindsay Hudyma in the 1vs2 page playoff and then defeated former champ Diane Gushulak in the final to pick up her 4th provincial title.

Alberta: Shannon Kleibrink - A bit of a #TeamUpset result here with Kleibrink going undefeated to claim the Alberta title.  She won the A qualifier over Geri-Lynn Ramsay then defeated Val Sweeting in the 1vs2 page playoff and provincial final.  Sweeting and fellow grand slam champion this year Casey Scheidegger entered as favourites with Nadine Chyz also being an outside contender.  Sweeting did defeat Scheidegger in the SF before losing the final.  Kleibrink recorded her 5th provincial title with the win.

Saskatchewan: Penny Barker - Perhaps the #TeamUpset highlight across the country.  Penny Barker squeaked into the playoffs with a 4-4 record and needed a TB win over Brett Barber just to reach the playoffs.  Once there though, her rink was unstoppable in knocking off Nancy Martin (3vs4), 4-time champ Stef Lawton (SF) and top team of the week Robyn Silvernagle (F).  Barker's key to success was the 10th end where she stole 2 to beat Martin, stole 3 to beat Lawton and picked up 4 to record the comeback win in the final.  Team Barker will be one of two rookie teams in the field.

Manitoba: Michelle Englot - So you were expecting to see Jennifer Jones here right?  Perhaps grand slam champ Kerri Einarson maybe?  Neither even made the final!  #3 seed and Tour Challenge runner-up Michelle Englot (former 8-time Saskatchewan champ) recorded her first Manitoba provincial title when she defeated surprise finalist Darcy Robertson in the final.  Robertson probably posted the biggest upset across the country when she defeated Jones in the SF.  Englot started the RR 5-0 before losing her final two games to Einarson and Cathy Overton-Clapham.  Luckily she defeated Robertson earlier in the RR and came out of the 3-way tie for first at 5-2 in 1st place over Robertson and Einarson to avoid a TB.  Englot would defeat Jones in the page playoff to receive the bye to the final before beating Robertson to claim the title.

Ontario: Rachel Homan - Homan erased the demons of last year in claiming her 5th Ontario title but it wasn't as easy as many expected. Homan finished the RR with a 5-2 record, good enough for second place behind Jacqueline Harrison's 6-1 record.  Homan lost RR games to Harrison and Allison Flaxey.  Enter the playoffs though and Homan was her dominate self, defeating Cathy Auld (SF) and Harrison (F) to punch her ticket as the home province fan favourite.

Northern Ontario: Krista McCarville - Defending Scotties runner-up McCarville claimed her 6th Northern Ontario title defeating main rival Tracy Fleury in the final.  Both McCarville and Fleury dominated the 4-team RR, posting 5-1 records and each defeating one another once.  The tiebreaker finale was close until a big steal of 2 in the 6th end by McCarville helped ice the game.  Fleury picked up 3 in 9 to trail by 1 but McCarville answered with 3 back in 10 for the 10-6 win.

Quebec: Eve Belisle - Welcome back Eve Belisle!  Belisle dominated the Quebec championship, posting a 6-0 RR record to receive a bye to the final before defeating defending champion Marie-France Larouche (on Larouche's home ice) to book her 3rd Scotties trip.

Newfoundland and Labrador: Stacie Curtis - Stacie Curtis has quickly established herself as the present AND future of women's curling on The Rock!  Curtis picked up her 4th provincial title when she defeated Shelley Hardy in the final.  Both Curtis and Hardy finished the 5-team RR with 3-1 records.  Curtis lost her opener to past champion Heather Strong and never looked back, reeling off 4 wins in a row to collect the championship.

Prince Edward Island: Robyn MacPhee - Don't look now but Robyn MacPhee just won her 8th (8!!!) PEI title when she defeated Veronica Smith in the SF.  Let me explain that one.  The provincial championship has only 4 entries and uses a triple knockout format.  MacPhee won the A and B events but lost the C final to Smith, resulting in a playoff where Smith had to beat MacPhee twice.  Smith raced out to an early 4-0 lead but MacPhee battled back stealing 1 in 9 and the championship clinching point in 10 to seal the title.  MacPhee has had a great season and could surprise a few teams in St. Catherines.

New Brunswick: Melissa Adams - The other rookie skip at the #STOH2017 will come from New Brunswick.  Melissa Adams, the 1998 World Junior Curling Champion, finished the RR with a 4-2 record and defeated former champion Sylvie Robichaud in the TB.  She defeated current NB junior champion Justine Comeau in the SF before besting Sarah Mallais in the final.  Adams used a big score of 4 in the 6th end to give her an 8-3 lead and cement her first provincial champion.  Adams will have to battle the three Territories in the pre-qualification event to reach the Scotties field however.

Nova Scotia: Mary Mattatall - With an 8-team field consisting of defending champion Jill Brothers, former Canadian and World champion Mary-Anne Arsenault and a strong Theresa Breen team, a #TeamUpset would emerge in the Bluenose province when Mary Mattatall took home the title.  Mattatall finished first in the RR with a 6-1 record (only lost to Arsenault) earning the bye to the final.  She would defeat defending champ Brothers, picking up a critical steal of 5 in end 7 to win her 6th Nova Scotia championship.  As you will hear leading up to and during the Scotties, 61 year old lead Marg Cutlliffe will be competing right along side her skipper looking to take home a Scotties title.

Team Canada: Chelsea Carey - The defending Canadian champions from Alberta will be back to try and book another spot to the World Championships and erase the disappointment of just missing the podium last year in Swift Current.

Now #StayTuned my rock heads and stoners, the 2017 Scotties Tournament of Hearts preview blog will be coming from my hack to your house very shortly....and perhaps a special guest will even be joining me to offer his or her own predictions and perspectives.  Trust me, you won't want to miss the #STOH2017 preview!

Ok, the Scotties field is full but the Tim Hortons Brier field is just starting to fill out it's slate.  A few spots have already been claimed while the remainder of the field will be finalized over the next week.  Let's take a quick look at who will already be hitting the ice in St. John's before diving into the predictions for the remaining spots.

Team Canada: Kevin Koe - The defending Canadian and World Champions will be back to defend their title on The Rock.  The Alberta boys have struggled this season by their standards.  However, the recent big win at the TSN All-Star Skins Game in Banff, AB showed this team may just be starting to peak at the right time of the year.  Last season they started slow and finished strong.  Could we be seeing some history repeating this season with this team?  Never count out Koe and this talent-loaded team chalked full of experience.

Newfoundland & Labrador: Brad Gushue - Well the first dream of Brad Gushue was to bring the Brier to his home as the host city.  Check!  The second dream was to qualify to compete at home as the Newfoundland & Labrador champion.  Check!  The final part of the dream is win the Brier at home.  Can he do it though with all the pressure?  Well this team certainly has been on a roll as of late.  Coming off their grand slam win at The Canadian Open, the team rolled at the provincial championship going a perfect 4-0 in the RR and then defeating Adam Boland in the final to claim his 14th purple heart.

Nova Scotia: Jamie Murphy - Jamie Murphy was the class of the field at the NS Tankard, finishing first in the RR with a 6-1 record with their only loss being in the second draw against Team MacDougall.  The championship final was a back and forth affair between Murphy and Stuart Thompson.  The final needed an extra end to sort it out but Murphy would score the deuce in 11 to claim the title.  This will be the 4th Brier appearance for Murphy and the first time he has been a back-to-back NS champ.  Murphy will need to survive the pre-qualification event though to advance to the Big Dance!

Prince Edward Island: Eddie MacKenzie - The PEI skip claimed his 5th provincial title and did it the hard way.  After starting the triple knockout event with an A side victory, clinching a playoff spot, the team would struggle to navigate through the B and C sides.  They suffered a B side SF loss to Phil Gorveatt and a C side QF loss to Robert Campbell.  To make matters more complicating, Phil Gorveatt would win the B and C side meaning MacKenzie needed to beat Gorveatt twice to win the title.  The SF saw Gorveatt score 4 in the first end but MacKenzie fought back to win and force a deciding championship match.  In the final, MacKenzie got off to the hot start stealing points in the first 4 ends to jump out to the quick 5-0 lead and never looked back.  The Islanders will start the Brier in the pre-qualifier.

Quebec: Jean-Michel Menard - The 2006 Canadian Champion will be making his 11th Brier appearance as Quebec champion.  Menard did not have an easy time in claiming his 11th title though.  The team struggled to a 3-3 finish in the RR, needing a TB win over Yannick Martel to reach the championship round.  Menard would win all 3 games in the CR and just reach the Page Playoff as the #4 team with a 6-3 record.  The perennial favourites would not be stopped in the playoffs, defeating Jean-Sebastien Roy (3vs4), Pierre-Luc Morissette (SF) and rival Martin Ferland (F) to claim the title.

Ontario: Glenn Howard - Can anyone stop Glenn Howard in Ontario?  In a provincial competition where many expected this to be the year for John Epping, Howard stayed calm, cool and collected in claiming his 17th Ontario championship.  Howard would finish the RR with a 6-3 record to lock up second place.  Howard would defeat Epping in the 1vs2 Page Playoff game and, after an upset win for Wayne Tuck Jr. over Epping in the SF, would claim another Brier berth defeating Tuck in the final.

Saskatchewan: Adam Casey - Hello #TeamUpset!  Heading into the Sask Tankard, many expected to see defending three-time champion Steve Laycock prevail once again.  However, Team Meachem challenged Laycock last season in losing the provincial final.  After a few off-season moves adding PEI native Adam Casey and mid-season line-up changes, Casey will return to the Brier once again with his 3rd different province.  Casey would lose the A final to Laycock but nail down a playoff spot in winning the B side.  Casey would get revenge on Laycock in the 1vs2 Page Playoff to advance directly to the final where they would once again get the event tiebreaker match up against their rivals.  Casey dominated the final from the beginning claiming the first purple heart for the team and a 6th spot for the skipper.  Special congrats goes out to the newest member of the #TwineTime family, vice Catlin Schneider, on winning his first purple heart.  Worth noting, Schneider (or "Litterbox") also has set a record for most #TwineTime page views, currently topping the 1200 mark!  Schneider also completed the brother-sister SK championship run as sister Lorraine will be at the Scotties with Team Barker.

Nunavut: Jim Nix - This will be the first Brier appearance for Nix after claiming his first Nunavut championship.  This will also be only the second Brier appearance for the territory as a whole.  Last year Nunavut struggled to a 0-3 record in the pre-qualification event.  Nix and company will be looking to pick up the first ever Brier win for Nunavut in the pre-qualification event this year.

Northwest Territories: Jamie Koe - The Koe #PolarPower domination continues in 2017 as Jamie Koe claimed his 11th territorial championship and Brier berth.  Koe was in full control of the NWT playdowns going a perfect 6-0 in the RR to claim the title.  Skipper Jamie Koe is also a #TwineTime fam member and I wish him the best of luck competing at the #Brier2017.  Be on the look-out for the Battle of Koe's during Draw 13 on Wednesday March 8.  Koe's win also finalizes the trifecta for the family as sister Kerry will also be competing at the Scotties.

Yukon: Craig Kochan - The Craig Kochan/Jon Solberg team struggled to start the 7 team triple knockout, losing the A SF.  However the team would rebound quickly to claim the B side title before losing the C final.  As a result, the team would hit the ice for a rematch with Brent Pierce in the SF and using a big steal of 3 in end 6 to advance to the championship final.  Pierce however did win the A side and C side, meaning they needed to be defeated twice.  Pierce won the A side match up.  Kochan won the B final.  Pierce won the C final.  Kochan won the SF.  Make it a Best of 5 championship match up with the tiebreaker being for the purple heart.  A back and forth final came down to the 10th end and Kochan, with hammer, scored the winning point in 10 to clinch their Brier berth.  The Yukon champs will have to compete in the pre-qualification event.

Ok, let's get to the #TourLifePredictions section now.  We still have 5 Brier spots up for grabs over the next week....plus the USA Curling Nationals will also hit the ice in Everett, Washington.  it's prediction time folks!

British Columbia

The 12-team triple knockout should be an interesting championship to keep an eye on.  Defending champion Jim Cotter has John Morris back in the house taking on the skipping duties and throwing third stones.  This has proven to be a success on the national stage in the past, having lost the Olympic trials final and Brier final in the past.  Team Morris will be the overwhelming favourite to win the title.  However there are a few teams to keep an eye on.  Last year's provincial runner-up's Team Joanisse should be the strongest contender to try and take the title from Team Morris.  Joanisse is having a strong season and, given how the year on tour is going, a #TeamUpset win could occur here.  But what about the current Canadian Junior Champions, Tyler Tardi?  The #TardiParty will be riding a high heading into the event and, similar to Matt Dunstone last season, could we see a deep run to the final in the cards for Team Tardi?

#TwineTime prediction:  Team Morris def. Team Joanisse

Alberta

Perhaps the most wide-open provincial competition to keep an eye on this week.  With power house Team Koe already booking their spot at the Brier as Team Canada, the door is wide open for another Alberta team to finally break through and emerge as champion.  Given the history of this province with the domination of Ferbey, Martin and Koe in recent years, the 12 teams competing in the Boston Pizza Cup need to truly seize this moment.  The triple knockout format also means anyone can be beaten on any given day.  Only 3 years ago we saw Team Kevin Koe quickly suffer two losses and have to navigate the C side grind to the title (defeating Kevin Martin in the final).  Anything can happen here!  Charley Thomas has to be considered the early favourite, given how he has performed this season.  Plus experience will be on his side with the addition of Craig Savill at lead.  What about Brendan Bottcher?  Will the mid-season line-up change of adding Darren Moulding after losing Pat Simmons work in the short-term they have curled together (two events!)?  And looking for a dark horse team to perhaps fill the #TeamUpset role?  Look no further than Mick Lizmore's team.  They fly under the radar each season but, after reaching the Champions Cup last season, could this be the year they elevate their game up another level?

#TwineTime prediction:  Team Thomas def. Team Lizmore

Manitoba

Perhaps the most anticipated provincial championship on tap this week and the one gaining the most attention...and for obvious reason.  We have two of the top teams in the world looking to continue their provincial rivalry with defending champion Team McEwen and Team Carruthers.  McEwen finally threw the monkey off his back last year when he defeated Matt Dunstone in the final.  Team Carruthers won their first title together two years and has had a breakout 12 months, including a Champions Cup win at the end of last season and a Canada Cup win this year.  But don't just pencil both of these teams into the final quite yet.  McEwen has struggled this season and, at times, has looked a shell of their former selves in missing shots and struggling with ice.  Carruthers has been consistent all season with strong results but struggled at the recent grand slam.  Yes, they were the super heroes at the Continental Cup for Team North America in Las Vegas but can they put together back to back championship-style events, something they haven't done.  There have been a few interviews with the team saying this is their year to not only claim the Buffalo but also the Brier.  Could this be swagger and confidence or walking the fine line on cockiness?  If they start overlooking their competition with their confidence, a #TeamUpset contender could quickly brew itself on the ice.  Dunstone has a new team and could be a contender once again.  And watch out for Jason Gunnlaugson, this year competing with the former Dunstone line-up.  And, as has been the case over the past few years, never discount those Manitoba junior teams.  Don't underestimate current Manitoba champions JT Ryan and/or Hayden Forrester.  Both have had strong results in the past here and both are capable of doing so once again.  Oh, what about Willy Lyburn?  The veteran skip is always a contender and should not be counted out here either.  What a field!  I commented last year on my strong dislike of the championship format, having 32 teams compete in an A and B draw to finalize 8 teams to advance to the championship round.  Too many teams.  Too weird a format.  And a bit lame when teams stay within their pod group of 8 to see two qualifier spots automatically.  This favours the top seeds....but perhaps this is the year upsets reign supreme?  I am going out on a huge limb with a #TeamUpset pick....while everyone else is going to take the easy way out.  Go Big or Go Home...so with what may turn into an unpopular prediction....

#TwineTime prediction:  Team Dunstone def. Team McEwen

Northern Ontario

Well if there was any provincial playdown that could have the least amount of build-up it might just be in Northern Ontario.  Everyone must have Brad Jacobs and his defending champion team as the strong overwhelming favourite to once again return to the Brier.  The Olympic champs have been playing great as the season moves forward.  They already have a tour win under their belt, reached the SF at the most recent grand slam and just wrapped up a finals appearance at the TSN All-Star Skins Game.  Jacobs has not lost a Northern Ontario championship since 2009, remember the team skipped the 2014 championship because of their Olympic berth.  Do we see a #TeamUpset at all here?  Well never count out Al "The Iceman" Hackner, a two-time world champion and nine-time Brier participant.  The future of Northern Ontario curling, Tanner Horgan, could also provide some competition.  And if you want a really far out there dark horse to keep an eye on, pay attention to the Jordan Chandler team.

#TwineTime prediction:  Team Jacobs def. Team Chandler

New Brunswick

Hmmm what will happen in New Brunswick?  Honestly, you could perhaps flip a coin for this championship as the field is fairly wide open.  A case could be made for anywhere from 2 to 5 teams making a run towards the championship.  The 8-team round robin could see a team finish 5-2 and clinch first place and the bye to the final.  I also wouldn't be surprised to see a 3-4 record earn a TB spot.  Defending champion Mike Kennedy has to be considered a favourite.  James Grattan has won the purple heart 11 times and should never be counted out.  2015 champ Jeremy Mallais may contend as well.  Terry Odishaw and Charlie Sullivan have the experience factor in their back pocket too.  And we have a few #TeamUpset contenders as well with Jason Roach and Josh Berry.  Berry has multiple NB junior champion Rene Comeau as his vice.  A wide open field that could be very exciting to watch play out!

#TwineTime prediction:  Team Grattan def. Team Roach

USA Nationals

Men

Ah the US curling championships, always an interesting event to watch.  Unlike the Canadian championship, the winner of the US nationals does not automatically earn the stars and stripes bid to the world championship.  Last year was the perfect example as Brady Clark took home the championship but John Shuster represented USA at world's.  To qualify as the USA representative, a team must win the USA Nationals AND be ranked in the WCT Top 25 as of Jan. 23, 2017.  Heath McCormick is the only team to be ranked in the Top 25 for the men (#16) and, with a strong showing in Everett (win or not), should book their ticket to Edmonton.  The competition should be quite competitive though with former champions Pete Fenson, Todd Birr and Craig Brown joining Clark, Shuster and McCormick in the field.  In addition, Up and coming junior team Hunter Clawson could be the #TeamUpset for the field as well. McCormick has easily been the strongest and most consistent US team on tour this season, sitting a full 10 ranking points above the closest team (Brown) and building a rather comfortable 50 point lead for qualification.  Defending champion Clark will be competing in his home state however and a home town crowd certainly can help push a team forward.  McCormick has won 4 events this season though and should be the winner by the end of the event.  As an aside, wishing Team McCormick vice, and #TwineTime family member, Chris Plys best of luck this week too.  

#TwineTime prediction:  Team McCormick def. Team Clark

Women

Similar to the men, we have only one women's team that has met the minimum requirements for the world berth.  Nina Roth, currently ranked #19 on the WCT standings, has put together a fairly consistent tour season.  Team Roth also has built a similar cushion on the rankings, sitting roughly 40 points ahead of the next closest competitor (Jamie Sinclair).  Two-time defending champion and winner of three of the past four national championships Erika Brown will not be competing so a new champion will be crowned in Everett.  Roth is a two-time champion and Sinclair has a ton of experience at this event and on tour over the past few seasons to put both teams at the top of the favourites list.  However, a few current and past junior champion teams could pose some problems and bring the #TeamUpset concept into play.  Cory Christensen is a former USA junior champ and last year's silver medal winner at the World Junior Curling Championships.  Christensen also has a tour title under her belt this season.  Madison Bear did qualify to compete here; however, she won the USA junior title this season with her junior team and will miss this event to skip Team USA at the world championships starting Feb. 16 in South Korea.  As a result, Team Madison Bear will be skipped by another junior player, Cora Farrell.  Two former Olympians will also be making their skipping return to the national stage as Jessica Shultz and Cassie Potter could provide stiff competition for the top teams.  Teams from Wisconsin have won this championship 11 of the past 15 years and who happens to curl out of the badger state in this field?  Nina Roth!  However, Christensen has been making the steady climb over the past few years from a 4th place finish two years ago to 3rd place last year.  This seems to be the perfect year for her to end the Wisconsin stranglehold on the championship and bring the title back to Minnesota!

#TwineTime prediction:  Team Christensen def. Team Roth

Ok...phew...wow that was a long blog post curling fans.  My apologies...and thank you for sticking with me through it all.  After taking a month off though you had to know the first blog post back would be a bit longer than usual right?

As always, thank you to each of you for being a #TwineTime supporter.  This year I missed the annual #BellLetsTalk day due to being in Australia.  I must take the time at the end of this return blog post however to just share my gratitude with every curling fan, player, team, sponsor, media member out there who continue to show this blog support.  While I realize not everyone is going to support or like the blog, the sounds of support certainly have helped silence the few haters I have out there (at least in my own head!).  You can't please everyone of course and respect to those who continue to share their less than favourable opinion about me and my blog.  However, as many of you know, the personal reasons behind this blog are near and dear to my hearth....and for the betterment of my mental health.  While I continue to write this blog as a "cure" to personal mental health issues, the motivation and drive and passion is also fueled by the on-going support from each of you.  It truly does warm my heart.  A special thank you to TSN Curling as well for reaching out to me and offering me a seat at the media table for the recent TSN All-Star Skins Game in Banff.  I had a great experience last year and was truly humbled by their outreach for this year.  Unfortunately I was just returning from my trip to Australia and could not make it out to Banff this year but, as the old saying goes, it truly was the thought that counts.  Hopefully next year though!

So...agree or disagree with any of the predictions above?  Have your predictions for the men's provincial playdowns coming up this weekend?  Have thoughts on the upcoming Scotties?  Or have any other comments on the sport of #curling?  Share your thoughts with me in the comment section below or via twitter!

And remember, the 2017 Scotties Tournament of Hearts preview blog will be heading into your house very soon...and maybe even with a very special guest.  #StayTuned