Friday, 21 April 2017

#BetweenTheSheets: World Mixed Doubles 
Championship Preview
Nations leave it all on the ice for the final stop on the #RoadTo2018
The pressure is mounting.  The competition is fierce.  And, for some, time is slipping away.  39 nations are preparing to take the ice in Lethbridge, Alberta this week for the 2017 World Mixed Doubles Curling Championship.

A world championship title is not the only important thing on the line this week though.  While all 39 tandems will be aiming to take home a world championship, this week also marks the final opportunity for nations to qualify for the upcoming 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea.  This will be the end of the #RoadTo2018, final stop Lethbridge!

Mixed doubles will be making it's Olympic debut in Pyeongchang and each nation would love to lay claim to taking home the first Olympic gold medal in the discipline.  We never know what the future will hold for the sport and/or the discipline itself but we do know there will always be in the first duo to ever stand atop the Olympic podium.  Great Britain owns this historic feat on the men's side, winning gold at the 1924 Winter Olympics.  Interesting side note, Team GB dominated the competition, beating Sweden 38-7 and France 46-4.  #Yikes  On the women's side, Canada's Sandra Schmirler brought home the first Olympic gold at the 1998 games defeating Denmark in the final.  Which athlete and which nation can be the first in 2018?  Time will tell...but first you have to get there!
Many sports fans...heck many #curling fans even...may not be familiar with the discipline of mixed doubles.  Mixed doubles is a high offence, full house, rocks in play style game.  Points will be scored.  Perfect ends are not as uncommon as one might think.  And, most importantly, #NoLeadIsSafe!!  Here is the quick summary of what to expect when watching mixed doubles curling:
  • Mixed doubles is for teams of two players, one male and no female, with no alternate players
  • The game is played on the same sheet of ice as other curling disciplines
  • Teams have only 6 stones each (instead of 8) and one stone from each team is prepositioned on the centre line before each end of play begins.  A perfect end is a score of 6!
  • Player One delivers first and last stone while Player Two delivers second, third and fourth.  The two players may swap positions from Player One to Player Two from one end to the next.
  • Sweeping can be done by both players.
  • The "skip" or Player One does not need to stand behind the hog line at the scoring end.  Teams can select to have a sweeper instead of a "skip".
  • Each team receives 22 minutes of thinking time and games are scheduled for 8 ends.
  • Team may call a #PowerPlay once per game (but only when the team has hammer), meaning pre-placed stones will be moved out to one of the sides and placed as a corner guard and a stone behind it, with the back of the stone against the tee line.
  • The first take-out is allowed with the fourth stone played each end.
  • Before fourth stone, teams are not allowed to hit either their opposition or their own stones out of play.
  • If an end is blanked, the team that delivered first stone will have decision on pre-determined rock placement the next end.
Got all that?  It may sound a bit confusing at first but once you watch a few ends of play even the casual fan should be able to pick it up.  As you can note from the rules mentioned above, the game moves quick and quite often all rocks are in play each end.  It is not uncommon for a team to score 4 one end and give up 5 the next.  Nor is it uncommon to score 1 one end and then steal 3 the next.

Let's talk history, shall we?  To have a better understanding of the tradition behind the new Olympic discipline, you need to know how we got here.  And you may be surprised with a few of the mixed doubles historic stats, namely how Canada has fared in the past.  Sharpen your pencils:

  • 2017 will mark the 10-year anniversary of the World Mixed Doubles Curling Championship.  The first tournament was held in 2008 in Vierumaki, Finland with 24 nations competing. Switzerland's Irene Schori (from two-time world champion Team Felstcher) and Toni Muller going undefeated, knocking off hosts Finland in the final.  Sweden took home the inaugural bronze medal defeating Norway.
  • Switzerland has proved to be the mixed doubles champion since the inception of the event.  In the 9-year history of the World Mixed Doubles Curling Championships, #HoppSchwiiz have claimed 5 world titles (2008, 2009, 2011, 2012, 2014).  Notable Swiss champions you may be familiar with include Irene Schori, Alina Paetz and Sven Michel.
  • Sweden is tied with Switzerland atop the all-time medal table with 5.  Unfortunately 4 of those have been silver medals and 1 bronze.  To add a little insult to injury, Sweden took home all 4 silver medals in consecutive years (2012-2015) with the bronze medal win coming the year before (2011).
  • Only 3 nations have took home top honours at the event with Switzerland claiming 5 and Hungary and Russia each taking home 2 titles apiece.  Hungary's titles in 2013 and 2015 were historic curling wins a nation still trying to find it's relevance in the curling world.  Russia took home their titles in 2010 (on home ice in Chelybinsk) and last year in Karlstad, Sweden.  Both Hungary and Russia also have silver medal wins to their credit, totalling 3 world championship medal finishes for both nations, right behind front-runners Switzerland and Sweden.
  • 2017 hosts Canada have struggled on the world stage for mixed doubles.  In the 9-year history of the event, Canada has found the podium only once when Allison Flaxey and Sean Grassie took home bronze back in 2009.  Since then Canada has only reached the #FinalFour one other time, losing the bronze medal game to Norway in 2015.  Scotland, another traditional curling powerhouse, has failed to land on the podium with their best finish being 4th place last year losing the bronze medal to first-time podium finisher USA in the process.
  • The world championships have produced historic firsts for many non-traditional curling nations in the past.  Besides the success of Hungary and Russia, other nations finding the podium at least once include: New Zealand (Silver, 2010), Spain (Bronze, 2010), France (Bronze, 2011), Austria (Bronze, 2012) and Czech Republic (Bronze, 2013).  Overall 14 nations have landed on the podium at least once in the history of the event.
Shall we talk Olympics?  As mentioned above, 2017 will mark the final opportunity for nations to collect qualification points to reach the 2018 Olympic field.  While the men's and women's Olympic tournament will feature 10 nations competing, the mixed doubles field will only have 8 nations in the draw.  With South Korea already claiming one spot as host nation, only 7 spots are left up for grabs.  Also worth noting, and again different from the men's and women's team qualification, there will be no final, last chance qualification tournament to reach Pyeongchang.  If a nation fails to find itself in the Top 7 of the combined 2016/2017 world championship qualification points table, no Olympics for them.

In viewing the qualification table to the right, Russia, China, USA and Great Britain have the inside track on an Olympic bid heading into Lethbridge due to the their #FinalFour placement last year in Sweden.  Canada, Estonia and Finland will have the most pressure on them as they are barely holding onto the final three spots.  Estonia?  Yup...Estonia friends!  Talk about a great #growthesport moment if they are able to replicate the result of last year and qualify for the 2018 Winter Olympics.  If you need a #TeamUpset to rally behind, might I suggest Estonia, Slovakia, Austria and Ireland?!

Notice anything a bit off about the qualification table, especially in comparison to the history lesson above?  If you noticed the lack of Switzerland and Sweden on the list, you are correct.  Two-time world champion Hungary is also missing.  All 3 of these nations stumbled in 2016 with Hungary finishing just outside the points in 13th, Sweden finished in 25th and Switzerland finished in 28th.  If you look at the table close enough you may also notice nobody received 5 points last year.  Well that is because England finished in 8th place but, due to Scotland's 4th place finish and Team GB being the combination of many nations, England's result does not go towards the qualification table thus voiding the 5 point mark.  The small gap of two points between 7th and 8th to start the event could play huge into the final qualification as the week wears on.  Plus both England and Scotland (plus Wales) are back this year with both not only trying to qualify Team GB for the Olympics but both also wanting to put the other on notice of being the Team GB 2018 front runner.

When looking at qualification points, remember only the Top 12 teams earn points.  16 teams will reach the playoff round and, win or loss, will continue to work their way through the A-side and B-side of the playoff bracket trying to earn those Olympic points.  Each win matters.  Each loss hurts.  And while you can only control what you do on the ice, one loss at the wrong time could see another nation creep up behind you and pass you on the Olympic qualification table.  With 39 nations completing this week, no team should feel safe right now and each nation still has a lot of work to do to punch their 2018 Winter Olympic ticket.

2017 World Mixed Doubles Curling Championship

Lethbridge, Alberta, Canada

2016 Champion:  Russia (Anastasia Bryzgalova, Alexander Krushelnitckiy)

Format: 39 teams divided into 5 pools with 4 pools having 8 teams and 1 pool having 7 teams.  The top 16 advance to the playoff bracket.

Pool A

The favourite in Pool A has to be two-time world champions Zsolt Kiss and Dorottya Palancsa from Hungary.  The 2013 and 2015 champs had a surprising stumble last year when they went 6-0 in the RR and suffered a R16 loss to Scotland to kick-start their #RoadTo2018, meaning this year they need a Top 3 finish to probably have a realistic shot at Olympic qualification.  They can do it though and past world champs should never be underestimated.  Finland's Tomi Rantamaki and Oona Kauste and holding down the final Olympic spot at the moment thanks to their 7th place finish last year.  Similar to Hungary, they went 6-0 in the RR and defeated Ireland in the R16.  They ran into a hot Russian team in the QF though, of course Russia would end up taking the title.  Estonia is another team to watch as they cling to an Olympic berth.  The pairing of Erkki Lill and Maile Moelder need a QF result or better here to hold onto their spot.  Japan could be the surprise out of the group though with Shinya Abe and Ayumi Ogasawara.  From a #growthesport perspective, Croatia will be making their world championship debut this year.

#TwineTime Prediction:  1. Hungary  2. Finland  3. Japan  4. Estonia  5. Latvia  6. Brazil  7. Belarus  8. Croatia

Pool B

Pool B welcomes 6 returning teams from the 2016 tournament, including 3 currently in the running for Olympic spots.  Scotland's Bruce Mouat and Gina Aitken lead the way after their impressive 4th place showing last year.  They took the long road last year finished the RR 4-2 and going through Czech Republic (TB), Hungary (R16) and Canada (QF) before falling to China (SF) and USA (Bronze).  They have been playing together in numerous mixed doubles events all season and should be the overwhelming favourite to win the pool.  Norway's Magnus Nedregotten and Kristin Moen Skaslien were 9th place finishers last year, losing a tough R16 battle to Estonia.  Nedregotten and Moen Skaslien did win bronze in 2015 though and should give Scotland a run for top of the pool.  Ireland's Neil and Allison Fyfe and Bulgaria's Reto Seiler and Marina Yaneva both reached the playoff round last year as well with Ireland claiming a 12th place finish.  The Wales team of Adrian Meikle and Dawn Watson had a rough 1-5 finish in 2016 but should still be considered a dark horse team in this pool.  Serbia's Bohan Mijatovic and Dara Gravara-Stojanovic went 0-6 last year.  Italy and Denmark round out the pool.

#TwineTime Prediction:  1. Scotland  2. Norway  3. Italy  4. Ireland  5. Wales  6. Denmark  7.  Bulgaria  8. Serbia

Pool C

C is for Champion...and C is for China!  The defending silver medal winners headline this pool...and they should have no trouble advancing here in their quest to become World Champions.  Dexin Ba and Rui Wang have been on fire all season playing various mixed doubles events are the world and looked poised to make a return trip to the world final.  The biggest competition in the pool should come from Sweden's Per and Camilla Noreen.  The Noreen's were runner-up finishers in 2012, 2014 and 2015.  They took a tough turn in 2016 finishing 3-3 in the RR and missing the playoffs.  Don't expect a similar result this time around however, especially with the Olympic backs against the wall.  The dark horse team to watch will be 2012 bronze medal winners Christian Roth and Claudia Fischer from Austria.  The duo finished in 8th place in 2013 and 2014 and will look to build on the Olympic qualification points the nation earned last year.  South Korea already have qualified for the Olympics as hosts but Kijeong Lee and Hyeji Jang will want to build some momentum at this event.  The duo finished last year in 13th place after a 4-2 RR and surprise loss to England in the R16.  Israel (1-5) and Netherlands (0-6) also make their returns from a year ago.  Australia and Poland round out the pool.  We also see a few familiar curling names behind the bench as coaches in this pool: Uli Kapp (Austria), Jay Merchant (Australia) and Kay Montgomery (Netherlands).

#TwineTime Prediction:  1. China  2. Sweden  3. Austria  4. South Korea  5. Australia  6. Israel  7. Poland  8. Netherlands

Pool D

Pool D should belong to Team North America.  Canada's Reid Carruthers and 2017 World Champion Joanne Courtney should be able to navigate the draw through to the playoffs and bolster the Maple Leaf's shot at the Olympics.  The #StarsandStripes will also be well represented by Matt and Becca Hamilton.  Both nations look strong in this pool and both will have a legit shot at the Olympic berths.  The competition will not be a complete walk in the park though.  2013 bronze medal winners Tomas Paul and Zuzana Hajkova from Czech Republic and last year's 8th place finishers Ben and Anna Fowler from England should be teams to keep an eye out for and are capable of knocking off the North American squads.  The dark horse team could come from Turkey with Alican Karatas and Dilsat Yildiz, who finished with a 4-2 RR last year before falling to Ireland in a qualification game.  France's Romain Borini and Sandrine Morand finished 3-3 last year, just missing the playoffs.  Kazakhstan's Viktor Kim and Diana Torkina will compete, with Kim finishing 0-6 last year.  Germany rounds out the pool.  From a previous experience perspective, this might be the most difficult pool in the competition as up to 6 of these nations could compete for a playoff spot.  Worth noting, Ontario's Jake Higgs will be coaching Team USA this week.

#TwineTime Prediction:  1. Canada  2. USA  3. Turkey  4. England  5. Czech Republic  6. France  7. Germany  8. Kazakhstan 

Pool E

The defending world champions have been drawn into the one pool of 7 teams, meaning one less game for them to compete and offering up that one extra draw to relax before making a deep playoff run.  The Russians, similar to their Chinese rivals, have been making the mixed doubles competition rounds this season and have continued to look like the world champions of a year ago.  This is going to be a very difficult team to defeat.  With the Olympic spot not really in doubt, the big question will be who, if anyone, can stop this duo from a repeat championship?  Martin Rios is a 2012 World Champion from Switzerland however and could challenge the champs with partner Jenny Perret.  As well, 2010 runner-up tandem of Sean and Bridget Becker return to represent New Zealand.  The Kiwi's went 5-1 in the RR last year before suffering a R16 loss to Canada.  The #TeamUpset flag may just fly with Spain this week....and why not?!  2014 bronze medal winner Irantzu Garcia returns with partner Gontzal Garcia after a 3-3 record last year.  Spain will also have a noteworthy coach with them, current Alberta champion Brendan Bottcher.  Romania, Slovenia and Slovakia round out the pool of 7.

#TwineTime Prediction:  1. Russia  2. New Zealand  3. Switzerland  4. Spain  5. Slovenia  6. Romania  7. Slovakia

Playoff Bracket Qualifiers:  Hungary, Finland, Scotland, Norway, China, Sweden, Canada, USA, Russia, New Zealand, Japan, Austria, Switzerland, Turkey, Estonia, England

#WMDCC2017 Bronze Medal:  Scotland def. Hungary

#WMDCC2017 World Championship:  Russia def. China

2018 Olympic Qualification Point Qualifiers:  Russia, China, Scotland, Hungary, Canada, Sweden, Finland, Norway, Japan, Austria, USA, Estonia

2018 Winter Olympic Qualified Nations:  Russia, China, Great Britain, Canada, Finland, USA, Hungary, South Korea (Hosts)

Phew....the predictions for the playoff bracket and trying to weave your way through to allocate the points is quite the battle.  And I am only doing it from a prediction standpoint....imagine the excitement of it all next weekend when the action actually takes place on the ice.  I believe there are possibly 6 to 8 teams capable of pulling out a world championship win while up to 10 or 11 nations still have real and legit chances of completing their #RoadTo2018 with success come next weekend.

#StayTuned rock heads and stoners....the #TwineTime blog will be in Lethbridge for the opening weekend action.  Check out twitter for live updates and feel free to comment on the preview/predictions above through the comment space below or on twitter.

Enjoy the World Mixed Doubles Curling Championships everyone!!

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