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Wednesday, 26 April 2017

#BetweenTheSheets: Champions Cup Closes Curling Season
Will we see #TeamCanada, #TeamWorld or #TeamUpset claim the final grand slam?


The time has arrived curling fans.  The final event of the 2016/17 curling season is about to slide out of the hack at Calgary's famed Canada Olympic Park (or COP as we call it here in #yyc).  The grand slam of curling takes centre stage as the final tour event with the Humpty's Champions Cup.

Last year marked the debut of this new grand slam event and, if you follow the #TwineTime blog, you will have read my excitement about the addition.  What a perfect way to close a season!  Let's bring back the big tour winners from the year, throw them on the ice of an iconic venue and let's just see who truly is the ultimate Champion of Champions for 2016/17.  How can you not get excited?

Some teams participating this week in Calgary have not thrown a competitive rock in weeks or maybe months.  A few others are just coming from an event in Europe.  And one team has not had a week off in over a month.  The question is which team strategy will prove to be the ultimate best decision?  Do you take some time off to prepare for the final grand slam?  Do you keep playing events hoping to remain in competitive peak performance?  Or do you risk curling fatigue by over-scheduling yourself?  All options have both good and bad possibilities.  And all options can produce a grand slam champion OR an early slam exit.


It has been a few weeks since we have caught up rock heads and stoners.  For those who may not know (and if you follow me on twitter or subscribe to this blog you should know) I was fortunate enough to be in Lethbridge last weekend taking in the opening draws of the World Mixed Doubles Curling Championships, as well as checking in with the World Senior Curling Championships.  For a full preview and predictions of the #WMDCC2017, check out the blog post HERE.

Between the Ford World Men's Curling Championships to kick off the month of April and the culmination of a long, exciting season to end the month with the Champions Cup, a few teams have been warming their sliders and competing in some events around the world.  Let's go to a view from the hack of a #GunnerRunback:
  • The Players' Championship grand slam event wrapped over the Easter weekend in Toronto.  Niklas Edin continued his tour domination by collecting his 3rd grand slam of the year defeating Mike McEwen in the championship final.  Remember heading into this season no non-Canadian team had won a men's grand slam event.  The #SwedishVikings now have 3!!  Props to World Champion Brad Gushue and #TeamUpset in this field Scotland's Kyle Smith on reaching the SF.  Smith has now reached a #gsoc final and SF this season.  Extra props also go out to Team Jacobs, Team Epping and Team Laycock for claiming the final direct entry spots in the Roar of the Rings Olympic Trials!
  • The Players' Championship women's division saw a very familiar face take home the title....her 13th #gsoc title to be exact.  Jennifer Jones continued to show her team is getting ready for a repeat Olympic run in claiming another slam title.  Jones defeated Val Sweeting in the final.  #TeamEurope was well represented in the SF though as Sweden's Anna Hasselborg and Switzerland's Silvana Tirinzoni made the #FinalFour.  Props go out to Team Flaxey, Team Scheidegger, Team Englot and Team Sweeting for locking down Roar of the Rings Olympic spots, in addition to non-participant Team Carey.
  • Last weekend in St. Gallen, Switzerland, the EURONICS European Masters event took place.  Kyle Smith and Niklas Edin continued their stellar play from the previous week in Toronto in reaching the championship final.  Edin may have got the best of Smith in the Players Championship SF but Smith returned the favour in the European Masters final, taking home the title.  Another Scottish team, Tom Brewster, joined the podium when they defeated USA's Heath McCormick in the bronze medal game.  On the women's side Czech Republic's Anna Kubeskova pulled a mild #TeamUpset victory of her own when she defeated home nation favourite, former world champion and previously undefeated Alina Paetz in the women's championship final.  Canada's Karla Thompson prevented another Swiss team from reaching the podium, knocking off Melanie Barbezat in the bronze medal match.

With another grand slam event wrapping up and the final European tour Masters event coming to a close, you know there must be some shake-ups to the #PowerRankings right?  This is the penultimate ranking for the season.  Which teams sit atop the mountain heading into the final slam of the year?  Can any of the teams right below knock them off the top?  Could we see a new team go from honourable mention or not ranked climb the mountain?  In a season chalked full of #TeamUpset stories, anything is possible heading into this week's action.  Here is where we stand:


MEN

T1.  Team Gushue  (LR: 1) - SF loss for the World Champs. Still deserve the top...but sharing now...
T1.  Team Edin (2) - 3 slam wins. Euro Champ. World runner-up. Slam F and SF. #1 team this year?
3.  Team Smith (NR) - Nice end to the season with a slam SF and Euro Masters title.
4.  Team McEwen (HM) - After 3 QF slams this season, nice to see a F appearance. Time for a win?
5.  Team de Cruz (5) - The Swiss continue to shine, back to back slam QF & world bronze.

Hon Mention:  Team Jacobs, Team Shuster, Team Walstad, Team Koe

WOMEN

1.  Team Homan (1) - Lost at Players QF but still World Champs, tough to knock them off the top.
2.  Team Jones (HM) - Won another slam, back up the rankings. Defending champs this week.
3.  Team Tirinzoni (HM) - 2 slam finals, 2 slam SF. Most consistent team on tour?
4.  Team Sweeting (NR) - Almost claimed slam #2. Making a push as a Big 3 contender in Canada.
5.  Team Hasselborg (4) - Another slam, another SF. Can they finally overcome the SF hump though?

Hon. Mention:  Team Muirhead, Team Sidorova, Team Fleury, Team Scheidegger

Went with a slightly different format for the #PowerRankings this week, just to try something different.  Rather than a more lengthy explanation, going with the quick and easy one liner to explain the ranking position.  What do you think #TwineTime fans?  Fits a more similar format we see with Power Rankings from the traditional media outlets you are all familiar with I am sure.  One thing I will comment on though, I just could not rank Gushue or Edin alone in first.  Let's have the final event of the season, a grand slam event, settle the score on which of these two teams deserves the #1 ranking.  Honestly, I cannot foresee any other team competing this week overtaking one or both of these teams.

Speaking of the Champions Cup....let's clean the rock a bit to discuss this event.  Added last season, the Champions Cup truly serves as a perfect exclamation point on the curling season.  Unlike other grand slam events, this is not based solely on ranking points and special invites.  There is only one way to navigate an invite into this field....WIN!!!  If you win an event on tour during the season, you already are put into the select group of possible Champions Cup participants.  I love everything about this concept.  I won't go into too much detail about why BUT I will say check out my inaugural event preview last year HERE...I still stand by those points!

The automatic championship qualification adds intrigue to the event.  For those new to this event, winners of the following events earn a Champions Cup invite: The Masters, Tour Challenge, The National, The Elite 10, The Players Championship, The Scotties/Brier, The World Championships, The European Championships, The Pacific/Asia Championships, The US National Championships and, perhaps the one I love the most, The World Junior Championships.  The perfect #growthesport moment in seeing our world junior champs have the opportunity to step on the grand slam arena ice and compete with the best in the world.  Last year Scotland's Bruce Mouat went 2-2 and lost a TB game to Team Laycock.  Nova Scotia's Mary Fay, skipped by Kristin Clarke, finished 1-3 missing the playoffs but did defeat then-Canadian champ Chelsea Carey in her opening game.

The remaining invite spots are awarded to winners of World Curling Tour events, based on the strngth of field number.  This season, mostly due to Team Edin's grand slam domination, we will see 8 tour event winners round out the field on the men's side.  Unfortunately world junior champ Lee Ki jeong from Korea had to turn down the invite as did Norway's Steffen Walstad.  These declines turned into wins for two Scottish teams though as Grant Hardie will make his #gsoc debut and Tom Brewster returns.  For the women, with #TeamUpset dominating the slams and producing a few first-time winners, we will see 7 tour winners.  Pacific-Asia champion Kim Eun jung from Korea will be unable to attend as well as tour winner Marla Mallett.  Advantage opportunity however for Jacqueline Harrison and former world champion Alina Paetz.

<Ed. Note: Thanks Grand Slam of Curling's Jonathan Brazeau for the simple qualifying graphic>

Similar to my preview last season, I still feel like a triple knockout format brings out more excitement for this event.  A season-ending Clash of the Champions theme needs a more intense schedule.  We see the pool play at almost every other slam event during the season while many tour events enlist the triple knockout.  Yes I realize this means adding another team to the field...so what?  I like the 16-team format.  I also still really believe the Elite 10 winner does not deserve a spot here.  I stand by my opinion on why I dislike the event, check out my Elite 10 preview blog for more details on that topic.

The one change to the field this year is the automatic entry spot for last season's Champions Cup winner.  Take a guess on where I stand with this decision?!?  If you guessed thumbs down, you are correct.  An auto spot for the previous champ?  Really?  What if that team does not win an event during the current season?  You are going to take away a winner's berth based on a result from a year ago?  Come on!  What if the team disbands in the off-season?  With the Olympic cycle coming to a close this year, team line-ups may be shifting next season.  This could play a factor into the auto berth spot reserved for this year's winner.  Take nothing away from Jennifer Jones and Reid Carruthers from winning last year's inaugural event but that was last year.  This is this year.  Sure both would have qualified regardless due to winning tour events already this season but that was no guarantee either.  I would rather say goodbye to the defending champ and Elite 10 auto spots and award tour event winners.  Besides, having more tour event winners helps the tour events.  Perhaps more high profile teams will play in these events to up the strength of field multiplier and win their ticket into the Champions Cup.  We will refrain from a rant on the strength of field multiplier and rankings system...but for a refresher check out my season opening blog post on this exact topic HERE!!!

Ok I digress....as I usually do.  I just get so excited about these events #TwineTime fans, hard to contain my thoughts and feelings.  I am an expressive person....sorry not sorry?!  Let's dive into the final preview and #TourLifePredictions of the season.

Humpty's Champions Cup

Calgary, AB

2016 Champions:  Team Reid Carruthers (M) and Team Jennifer Jones (W)

Format:  15 men's and women's teams competing in 3 pools of 5 teams.  The overall Top 8 advance to the playoff round.

Pool A - Men

A 4-time grand slam champion.  A 3-time grand slam champion.  World Champions.  We have a few of curling's elite headlining this pool.  Kevin Koe and Niklas Edin are a threat in any event they enter.  This season Edin has been the hottest team on tour.  They have also played more events than anyone else.  Coming from Switzerland this past weekend back to Canada....after flying to Switzerland from Canada the weekend before...could jetlag and fatigue catch up to the #SwedishVikings?  At this point, you almost have to assume it doesn't actually.  This is the type of season these boys have been playing all year and they actually seem quite comfortable with it.  I spoke with #KingNiklas (a #TwineTime fam member remember) at the world championships and he still thinks this team hasn't fully peaked to its full potential...Yikes!!  Koe lost the Brier final to Gushue, trying to repeat last year's performance.  They also suffered another loss to Gushue in the Players Championship QF.  These boys are going to be hungry for revenge.  John Shuster is coming off another successful world championship.  Sure they failed to replicate their medal from last year but a Top 4 finish is nothing to be upset about.  Shuster will find a slight line-up change though with regular second Matt Hamilton competing at the World Mixed Doubles Championship and the invite to former world junior runner-up Korey Dropkin (who also just wrapped up a season with Team McCormick in Switzerland).  John Epping has been a regular fixture on the grand slam tour, winning the Canadian Open last season.  However this has been a tough year for the boys, reaching only two QF.  And welcome Tour Challenge Tier II winner Greg Balsdon to the field.  Balsdon last played in a #gsoc event at the 2013 Players Championship.

Favourites:  Edin
Watch Out For:  Koe
Dark Horse:  Balsdon
The Rest:  Epping, Shuster

Pool B - Men

The current world champion Brad Gushue headlines Pool B but the competition will be strong for The Goo.  Mike McEwen is fresh off a Players Championship finals appearance and will be looking to keep the momentum going.  Pacific-Asia Champion Yusuke Morozumi from Japan will be looking to build momentum heading into next season with the added advantage/pressure of knowing they will represent Japan at the 2018 Winter Olympics.  Scotland's Tom Brewster has quietly put together another strong season on tour and will be looking to build momentum of his own heading into next season and what should be an Olympic fight to represent Scotland/Team Great Britain in Pyeongchang.  The wild card of the pool will be Steve Laycock though.  While the Laycock team did just enough to earn an Olympic trials spot with their TB loss at The Players Championship, this team is still learning how to work together with a new line-up.  The loss of regular second Colton Flasch a few months ago and the addition of two-time Canadian junior stud (and #TwineTime fam member) Matt Dunstone is a work in progress.  In the long-run this team will regroup and find the magic of winning, I am just not sure if it can happen this week.  The team showed signs of great progress in Toronto though and you know I am a sucker for #TeamOranje and #TwineTime fam #MrSmiles Kirk Muyres.

Favourites:  Gushue
Watch Out For:  McEwen
Dark Horse:  Brewster
The Rest:  Laycock, Morozumi

Pool C - Men

This may just be the toss-up pool of the tournament.  Honestly I can see each of these 5 teams making a playoff push.  The eye-test says Brad Jacobs should be considered an early front runner here.  Last year the 2014 Olympic champs missed this event....they didn't even qualify because they didn't win an event all year.  Not the case this year.  Weird to think Team Jacobs is making their debut at a grand slam even though isn't it?  These boys are heading into Olympic prep mode though and wanting to defend their Olympic gold.  Last season has been completely forgotten as the Big Boys won a grand slam (The National) this season as well reached 2 other #gsoc finals and a SF.  They were upset in the QF of The Players Championship mind you by Scotland's Smith.  Speaking of Olympic champs, what about John Morris?  After winning the Elite 10 to earn a spot here, the boys went into Toronto with a shot at earning at auto berth to the Olympic trials.  Unfortunately they fell short of the goal and will be in PEI for the pre-trials.  The question surrounding this team is how they cope and respond with what is probably a disappointing result.  Also, this team has a new line-up to end the season with Sasky boy, Brier 2017 All-Star and #TwineTime fam Catlin Schneider moving in at second to replace the injured Rick Sawatasky.  Speaking of line-up changes, how will Team Carruthers cope with their mighty leader competing in Lethbridge as Team Canada?  Regular vice, and former Canadian junior skip of course, Braeden Moskowy will return to the house to skip this team as Derek Samagalski moves to vice, Colin Hodgson to second and two-time world champion and Team Carruthers 5th man Craig Savill takes over at lead.  Sure these are all highly skilled athletes who know their craft quite well, but slight position changes can yield minor growing pains for even the best.  We will see how the defending champs handle the minor change.  They do win for most provinces represented on one team though, having SK (Moskowy), MB (Samagalski), AB (Hodgson) and ONT (Savill) on the team.  Two international teams complete the roster with current world bronze medal winners Peter de Cruz from Switzerland and debuting Grand Hardie from Scotland.  De Cruz has been on a roll as of late with the strong world championship result followed up by another QF #gsoc appearance.  They could just surprise the teams in this pool and make another playoff push.  As for Hardie, another strong Scottish team capable of flying the #TeamUpset flag and knocking off a few of the contenders and make a playoff push of his own.  We might need to toss a coin on the winner of this pool folks!

Favourites:  Jacobs
Watch Out For:  de Cruz
Dark Horse:  Hardie
The Rest:  Morris, Moskowy

Pool A - Women

Yowzers we have some champions highlighting this pool.  Ok we have the perennial contender and top team in the world, current world champions in fact, Team Homan highlighting the pool.  But they will see a minor line-up change with second Joanne Courtney competing in Lethbridge for another world title.  Team Homan will welcome Sarah Wilkes, 2016 Canadian Mixed Champion and 2017 Alberta Scotties winner with Shannon Kleibrink, at second.  This team is chalk full of world class talent but the absence of the best sweeper in the game could play a minor part in the set-up of ends.  Big curling shoes to fill for Wilkes.  Val Sweeting is a two-time #gsoc champion herself, winning the Tour Challenge this season in Cranbrook.  Team Sweeting consistently makes grand slam playoff runs, shown by the finals appearance at The Players and SF showing at The Canadian Open.  The big story to watch in Pool A though may just be the trifecta of #TeamUpset teams.  Canadian Open champ Casey Scheidegger waves the flag with pride and did reach the QF round in Toronto.  National champ Kerri Einarson reached 3 #gsoc SF last season before finding the trophy this year; however, the team has struggled a bit on tour and failed to reach the playoffs at the Canadian Open and didnt qualify for the Players.  And perhaps the ultimate #TeamUpset is Russia's Victoria Moiseeva.  Many Canadian curling fans may not be familiar with the 26yo but don't underestimate her.  She defeated defending Euro champ Anna Sidorova to win the Russian Euro spot this year....then just continued winning in claiming the European Championship!  She is a two-time Winter Universiade champion (2013, 2015) and a two-time world junior bronze medal winner (2011, 2012).  This will mark the grand slam debut for the Russian team but considering the theme of the season, would you want to overlook them?

Favourites:  Homan
Watch Out For:  Sweeting
Dark Horse:  Moiseeva
The Rest:  Scheidegger, Einarson

Pool B - Women

The World Championship Pool!  We have 2008 World Champ Jennifer Jones.  We have 2013 World Champ Eve Muirhead.  We have 2012 and 2015 World Champ Alina Paetz.  We have 2017 World Junior Champ Isabella Wrana.  How about the grand slam champions pool?  Jones owns 13 and is the defending champion here.  Muirhead has won 6, as recent as the 2016 Players Championship.  And what about Allison Flaxey?  She kicked off the #TeamUpset slam results winning The Masters in Okotoks this year.  Jones is obviously the favourite here, fresh off the slam win in Toronto of course.  Muirhead and Flaxey both saw some success in Toronto as well with Flaxey losing a TB to Hasselborg and Muirhead losing the QF to Jones.  Oddly enough Jones, Muirhead and Flaxey were all in Pool B together at last year's Champions Cup.  Jones went on to win the entire event while Muirhead/Flaxey missed the playoffs with identical 1-3 records.  Jones beat both in the RR while Flaxey beat Muirhead in both teams final game.  Paetz may be the perfect team to keep an eye on though.  Remember they are the current Swiss champions and are coming to Calgary fresh off a finals appearance in St. Gallen.  This is a bit of an up and down team.  If they can get hot early, watch out.  The team has struggled at the slams though as well, reaching only 3 QF's (most recent 2016 Canadian Open) and failing to reach the playoffs in 6 other events, including both slams this season (Masters, Tour Challenge).  But hello new #TeamUpset contender?  Sweden's Isabella Wrana is our current world junior champ and could turn some heads at Olympic Park this week.  Oh you don't know much about the 20yo Swedish skip?  Well prior to this season's world junior win, she had back-to-back world junior 4th place finishes (2014, 2015).  She is also the 2014 European Mixed Curling Champion.  Oh...AND this team just happened to be listed as the underdog Team To Watch in the #TwineTime season preview this year!!  Of course having brother Rasmus joining you in Calgary as a member of Team Edin and all the success he has had on tour and at slams shouldn't go unnoticed and is probably going to help calm a few nerves for the slam rookies.  You have been warned....watch out for Team Wrana.

Favourites:  Jones
Watch Out For:  Paetz
Dark Horse:  Wrana
The Rest:  Flaxey, Muirhead

Pool C - Women

Hello #TeamWorld....and Canada's Jacqueline Harrison.  Pool C will have international flavour scattered all over the ice with Europe, Asia and North America represented here.  The two big favourites to stand out though will be the European representatives: Switzerland's Silvana Tirinzoni and Sweden's Anna Hasselborg.  What is left to say about both of these teams that #TwineTime has not already said?  Tirinzoni broke through last season winning the Tour Challenge and has 2 slam finals and 2 slam SF results this year already.  Hasselborg also broke through, in a slightly different way perhaps, at the Tour Challenge last year.  They competed in the Tier II, their first slam event.  Fast forward to this season and they have 4 SF appearances to their credit.  The big question is can they overcome the SF curse?  It's been a tough season for skip Anna Hasselborg.  Sure strong results and wins but it's the near misses that could haunt her.  Her final stone picking in the European final, handing the title to Moiseeva.  The crushing bronze medal loss at the World Championships this season, in her debut.  She led Muirhead 4-3 playing 8, forced one and had hammer playing 9.  Unfortunately Muirhead would steal in 9 and again in 10 to really steal the medal from around her neck.  Sports can have ups and downs as we all know....it's how one regroups from the tough valley that define how, and if, they climb the mountain.  Hasselborg is experiencing that this season.  Speaking of world championships, welcome back 2009 champ Bingyu Wang from China.  Hmmm, another team #TwineTime mentioned as an underdog for the season!  Not too bad right?  This will be Wang's 3rd slam appearance this season; however, the team has failed to qualify for the playoffs.  Team North America will be represented by Tour Challenge Tier II winner Jacqueline Harrison and USA National champ Jamie Sinclair.  Harrison has been knocking on the Ontario door for a few seasons now.  They won the Tour Challenge Tier II in only their 2nd slam appearance after making their slam debut last year at this event in Sherwood Park.  They also reached the QF this year at the Canadian Open.  And Sinclair, the Alaskan-born, Canada Winter Games winner and St. Paul, Minnesota resident has finally come into her own on tour.  Many, #TwineTime included, have been waiting to see her make a move up the #wct rankings and the US National win this season finally became an arrival of sorts for the 25yo.  This will be a daunting field to navigate but anything is possible, right #TeamUpset supporters?

Favourites:  Tirinzoni, Hasselborg
Watch Out For:  Harrison
Dark Horse:  Sinclair
The Rest:  Wang

Qualifiers

Men -  Team Edin, Team Gushue, Team Jacobs, Team Koe, Team McEwen, Team de Cruz, Team Laycock, Team Morris

Women -  Team Homan, Team Jones, Team Tirinzoni, Team Hasselborg, Team Sweeting, Team Scheidegger, Team Flaxey, Team Paetz

Champions Cup Winners

Men:  Team Niklas Edin def. Team Brad Jacobs - The kings keep the crown on their head this year and end one of the strongest seasons we have seen on tour perhaps ever with a fourth (4th!!!) grand slam championship win.  The #SwedishVikings are confident in their game and in themselves and know there is no team on the planet they cannot defeat.  Team Jacobs is going to make a run towards another slam title of their own though and may even reach the final undefeated.  But this season belongs to #KingNiklas and his Court....we should just be considered lucky to be a part of his kingdom!!

Women:  Team Silvana Tirinzoni def. Team Anna Hasselborg - An all-#TeamEurope final to end the season.  Why not?  Both of these teams have been consistent all season.  Both have grand slam credentials and strong results under their belts.  Both have had huge wins this year and tough losses.  Tirinzoni may have the added advantage of once again inviting #SuperSpare Cathy Overton-Clapham as vice while regular third Manuela Siegrist heals from knee surgery.  I think both of these teams dominate their Pool C opposition leaving their Thursday evening battle to decide the pool winner.  While neither of these teams would be considered a #TeamUpset candidate, I do think seeing both battle for the Champions Cup title would be a #FinalsUpset of sorts.

Alright rock heads and stoners, the final event preview and predictions for the 2016/17 season is complete.  The curling rock has come full circle numerous times and has come to a stop....hopefully somewhere near the button with these final predictions.  Although, given how my season has gone, I would suspect more of a top 8ft. kind of result.

The #TwineTime blog is excited to be taking in the Champions Cup action from Canada's Olympic Park during the week.  My regular work schedule has me missing most of the evening draws but I will making my best efforts to swing by the house for a few afternoon draws and of course all the playoff action.  #StayTuned to twitter for behind the scenes and live updates....plus you never know who may just be joining the #TwineTime family.

ICYMI Ryan Sherrard, lead for Team Germany, joined the fam at the Ford Men's World Curling Championships.  Get caught up on the life of the former Canadian junior champion HERE.  And two other members are waiting to be unveiled in the upcoming weeks as members of the fam.

Enjoy the curling action everyone :)