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Wednesday, 25 October 2017

#MastersGSOC Preview

#BetweenTheSheets: Rings Run Green With Envy
Who will step up and claim the 1st major of the season?


Happy Halloween curling fans!  No, I am not dressing up as Slider this year.  And no the curling rings will not drip with Orange and Black...but rather the theme of this week on tour will be green with envy!

It must be time for The Masters to hit the house of the curling season.  The season's second Grand Slam of Curling event and first major will take over the Llodyminster Centennial Civic Centre from October 24 to October 29.

The build-up towards PyeongChang becomes more real with every passing week of the season and while some teams are seeing gold....others could be seeing green by the time The Masters wraps up on Sunday evening.

#ButFirst....before we dive into the preview of this year's #MastersGSOC field, here is the #GunnerRunback history lesson on what you should know as a curling fan:

  • Team consistency?  How about naming consistency?  The Masters seems to go through a name change more often then curlers change their lucky boxers (yes this is a fact folks).  Through the years different sponsors have led their name to this opening major, such as Kia, M&M Meat Shops, Home Hardware, Grey Power, GP Car and Home, Rogers and WFG last season.  For 2017, simplicity wins out as we are calling this event The Masters.
  • The event became an amalgamation of the World Cup of Curling/Masters of Curling and the Sun Life Classic.  The Sun Life Classic was contested from 2005 - 2011 (men) and 2007 - 2011 (women).  The World Cup of Curling was held  from 2009 - 2011.  Beginning in 2012, The Masters became the prestigious major event it is today with men's and women's tournament play running together.
  • Money, money, money, money right?  The Masters event has always carried a purse of $100,000 for the men.  The women's event in 2012 had only a $50,000 purse but this was upgraded to the equal purse for men and women in 2013.  The top purse for the now defunct Sun Life Classic was $50,000 for both the men and women from 2009 - 2011.  
  • Last season was historic when Niklas Edin and his #SwedishVikings won The Masters title to become the first non-Canadian team to win a #gsoc event.  On the women's side, Team Muirhead (2013) and Team Sigfridsson (2014) have reached the championship final but we are still looking for our first non-Canadian women's team winner.  Little known fact though, Edin is now stranger to taking home the title in this events storied history.  If we include the Sun Life Classic results, last season would technically be Edin's second title as he took home the men's title in 2011 (defeated Switzerland's Sven Michel).
  • Glen Howard has the most Masters titles with 6.  If we include the Sun Life titles, his number jumps to 8.  The next closest would be Mike McEwen with 4 titles (last coming in 2015).
  • Rachel Homan is the most successful women's skip with 3 titles (all in the past 4 years)  Allison Flaxey took home her maiden #gsoc title last year when she upset Homan in the final.
  • The winner of the 2017 Masters will receive an automatic berth in the season ending Humpty's Champions Cup, taking place in Calgary at the famous Canada Olympic Park at the end of April.
You know can put down your pens and papers, there will be no test later don't worry.  Although feel free to wow your fellow curling fans with the historical facts recounted above for your amusement and look like a curling historian genius (and maybe give #TwineTime some props or a RT at least!).

Time to slide out of the hack with our #TourLifePredictions for the season's opening major:

THE MASTERS

Lloydminster, SK

2016 Champions:  Niklas Edin (men) & Allison Flaxey (women)

Format:  15 teams competing in 3 pools of 5.  Top 8 qualify.

MEN

Pool A

The defending champion #SwedishVikings highlight this pool and should be a favourite to advance to the playoffs.  Edin and company are coming off a W last weekend in Champery and will have some extra motivation to repeat the title win for a season ago when they became the first non-Canadian team to take home a slam title.  Team Edin has a modest 22-12 record for the season and have never really been a team to go through a tour event undefeated.  Expect a loss in the RR but a strong enough record to qualify.

The danger team here will be Kevin Koe.  The Alberta boys have only played 3 events and failed to reach the playoff round at the season opening Tour Challenge in Regina.  Since then they have reached a championship final and, most recent, the SF in Portage.  They can be an up and down team at times but will be expected to make a playoff push.

One of the hottest teams on tour so far this season will also be competing in this pool, Jason Gunnlaugson.  Team Gunner won their way into this event by taking home the Tour Challenge Tier II event in September, which they followed up with another W at the Mother Club in Winnipeg.  Their last event in Edmonton was a disappointing 1-3 result and early exit so it will be interesting to see how Gunner and the boys handle the #gsoc lights and pressure on the Tier I level now.

The other two teams in this pool, John x2 if you will, are both looking to turn their season around with a strong result in the border city.  John Epping has looked strong at some events (QF Tour Challenge, SF in Saskatoon, QF in Gatineau) and then have struggled in others (DNQ Shorty Jenkins and Portage).  John Morris and his boys from B.C. have only played 3 events.  They struggled at the opening Tour Challenge, going 0-4, but reached the QF at their other 2 events.  We aren't really sure what to expect from either of these teams as they have the pedigree to go 3-1 but also end up 1-3.

Projected Standings:  1. Koe  2. Edin  3. Gunnlaugson  4. Epping  5. Morris

Pool B

Could this be some #PyeongChang2018 foreshadowing in this pool?  We already know Scotland's Kyle Smith will be there.  Norway's Thomas Ulsrud is only a playoff appearance at the upcoming European Championship from officially punching his Olympic ticket.  John Shuster has represented USA at the past 3 Winter Olympics (2006, 2010, 2014).  And Brad Gushue is the defending world champion and considered the front runner for the upcoming Canadian curling trials in Ottawa.  And should Gushue falter, Mike McEwen could be a strong contender to sweep up the red jackets for himself (we know those boys enjoy wearing red after all). 

Gushue should be the strong overwhelming favourite to win this pool though.  #TheGoo sports a remarkable 22-3 record on the season, took home the opening #gsoc Tour Challenge title and has since won back to back events (Swiss Cup Basel and Stu Sells Toronto) leading into this event.  They are looking like the same dominant team from a season ago and we all know how tough it is to stop a moving train!

But Ulsrud's #TeamPants or #TeamComfyBalls if you are daring to call them could be the surprise of this entire slam.  In 4 events this season, Ulsrud has reached 2 finals and a SF and own a 19-6 record for the year.  They will also get a rematch with Gushue in the RR here, hoping to extract revenge for the finals loss in Basel earlier this season.  The slams have never been super kind of Ulsrud, he last played this event in 2015 and finished 1-3 remember.  But this could be the season he turns it around with a deep playoff run.

The crowd should be excited to see Mike McEwen back on the grand slam ice though.  The boys missed the Tour Challenge due to personal commitments so this will be their first #gsoc event of the year.  McEwen is certainly no stranger to deep playoff runs here either, having won this event in 2015 and 2010 and reaching the final in 2014.  The team did reach the Shorty Jenkins final in their season opening event and recently had a strong SF finish in Portage leading into The Masters.

Shuster and Smith could be wildcards for the main contenders in this pool.  Smith's Scottish boys had a breakout season last year, reaching the Tour Challenge slam final and shooting up the rankings.  But this season has been the sophomore slump if you will after a stellar mostly rookie campaign.  They are 12-16 on the season and have only reached the playoffs in 2 of 5 events.  If there was ever a time to rediscover the magic of last season (and gain some momentum heading into the busy pre-Olympic part of the season) now is the time to do so!  Meanwhile Team Shuster has qualified in 3 of 5 events, including the Tour Challenge QF and will be looking to improve last season's disappointing 0-4 result at this event.

Projected Standings:  1. Gushue  2. Ulsrud  3. McEwen  4. Smith  5. Shuster

Pool C

Perhaps the wildcard pool and toughest one to call as any of these teams could be considered favourites to qualify here but also could easily slip up and finish 1-3 for an early exit.  2014 Olympic champions Brad Jacobs would be considered the leading men of the grouping though.  They have only played 3 events but have qualified in each event and have a championship W, SF result and QF showing to their credit.  It would be very shocking to see them not reach the playoffs.  Similar can be said for Team #HoppSchwiiz.  Peter De Cruz and company will be representing Switzerland in Korea this upcoming February and come to Lloyd fresh off a championship finals appearance last weekend in Gatineau.  They have qualified in 4 of 5 events this season with the outlier being, oddly enough, the Tour Challenge.

Steve Laycock and Reid Carruthers are no strangers to grand slam events and no strangers to having up and down results.  One slam both look like title contenders (Carruthers did win the Champions Cup in 2016) and then the next both fail to make the playoffs.  Which team shows up this week is the big question?!  Carruthers started the season slow, missing the Tour Challenge and Shorty Jenkins playoffs, but has since found a better groove and own a title already on the year (Canad Inns in Portage).  Laycock sports a shocking 10-12 record on the year reaching only 2 QF's (Tour Challenge, Direct Horizontal Drilling) from 4 events.  Luckily this team has a trials berth already but they are in desperate need to a turn around momentum building result right now.

And if you are looking for a true dark horse, Pat Simmons and the young bucks behind him are the team you should be cheering for.  Team Simmons was the surprise team at the opening Tour Challenge, reaching the QF.  They have qualified in 4 of 5 events this season and sport an impressive 20-9 record overall.  They also own season W's over Edin, Smith, Laycock, Carruthers and Shuster.

Projected Standings:  1. Jacobs  2. De Cruz  3. Carruthers  4. Laycock  5. Simmons

Qualifiers:  Team Koe, Team Gushue, Team Jacobs, Team Edin, Team Ulsrud, Team De Cruz, Team McEwen, Team Gunnlaugson

The Masters Men's Championship:  Team Jacobs def. Team Gushue - In an all-Brad battle between the 2014 Olympic Champs and the projected 2018 Olympic favourite, #FearTheMoose proves they are not quite ready to give up their Olympic title yet folks!  Jacobs needs a big W like this to give them the confidence and momentum heading into the upcoming trials in December.  A Gushue W this weekend would really create an even larger divide between them and the rest of the competition....which is not necessarily a bad thing if you are hoping for a Canadian gold medal in PyeongChang I suppose. 

WOMEN

Pool A

The #1 team in all of curling land, Sweden's Anna Hasselborg, will be a strong favourite to emerge with the top spot in this pool.  The team is 30-8 on the year, have qualified in all 6 events they have played including 3 championship finals (Tour Challenge, HDF Insurance, Canad Inns) and 3 SF appearances.  Basically just write them in now for a Final 4 slot right?  But, as this very blog has mentioned in numerous #PowerRankings posts, the failure to finish the big games and pick up a tournament W is causing concern.  What a perfect time it would be for them to erase some doubt and kick the monkey off their back with a #gsoc title this weekend.

The international flavour really highlights this pool with Scotland's Eve Muirhead (finalist 2013), Russia's Anna Sidorova and USA's Jamie Sinclair.  Muirhead is no stranger to strong #gsoc results, already claiming 4 grand slam titles in her career (6 overall if you count the now defunct events).  Muirhead reached the SF at the Tour Challenge (after battling through a TB) and picked up a title W at the HDF Insurance Shoot-Out (claiming revenge in the final on Hasselborg for the Tour Challenge SF defeat btw).  Sidorova entered the season off a Russia-best silver medal finish at the world championships last year but has struggled with consistent results this season qualifying in only every second event they enter and owning a modest 17-14 record for the year.  As for Sinclair, she may be the dark horse of the pool...if not the event.  Sinclair is 21-11 on the year, has qualified in 3 of 5 events and has successfully gone from Tour Challenge Tier II SF to start the season to Masters competitor in a few short months.

The non-International team in the pool just happens to be our defending champion, Allison Flaxey.  The defending champs are limping into the event this year however with a struggling overall record of 11-14 and qualifying in only 1 of 4 events.  The schedule is also not kind to them here as they do not begin play until Wednesday afternoon in comparison to Sidorova and Sinclair who would have already played 2 games.  Also skipper Allison Flaxey will not be with the team this week so vice Clancy Grandy will assume skipper duties and the team will welcome former Team Homan second Alison Kreviazuk to the line-up as vice.  This team is in desperate need of a strong result...a playoff result...this week.

Projected Standings:  1. Hasselborg  2. Muirhead  3. Sidorova  4. Sinclair  5. Flaxey

Pool B

World champions and one of the hottest teams on tour, Team Homan, will have all eyes on them when Pool B action hits the ice.  Homan started the season with a shocking 1-3 early exit result at the Tour Challenge but since has gone 16-1 winning back-to-back titles.  Talk about a momentum swing!  But do they have a little #gsoc curse on them right now or do we get the coveted Homan-Hasselborg final we all want to see?  Perhaps a pre-Olympic final preview even?

Speaking of the Tour Challenge, champion Val Sweeting lands in this pool and will be looking to continue her #gsoc success.  Last season the team won the Tour Challenge and they repeated the victory this season.  Since their win in Regina the team has had two QF finishes and a disappointing early exit at their most recent event in Calgary over Thanksgiving weekend.  The team has had a few weeks off to refresh though and could be a dangerous contender this week...they do love playing well at slams after all.

The two biggest darkhorses and #TeamUpset flag bearers from last season, Casey Scheidegger and Kerri Einarson, could surprise the two contenders here.  Scheidegger made all the headlines last season when, starting as a Tour Challenge Tier II team, she went on to claim the Canadian Open and rocket herself right into an Olympic trials spot.  This season the fire has died down a bit as the team sports a 9-8 record and qualified in only 1 event (their last event in Calgary).  Einarson, on the other hand, is trending in the opposite direction.  A slam champion from a year ago, The National, she had to take the long road back by winning the Tour Challenge Tier II this season to book her spot here.Don't underestimate them though, Team Einarson is 26-9 this season with 2 championship W's, another championship final and a SF finish. 

And don't forget Michelle Englot and her team from Winnipeg.  Team Englot reached the Scotties final last season and have a tournament win under their belts this season already (Mother Club).  They have struggled with consistency though, as noted in this week's #PowerRankings blog post, failing to qualify in their last two events.  Which team steps onto the ice this weekend: Scotties darlings from a season ago or #BambiBumble from the past few weeks?

Projected Standings:  1. Einarson  2. Homan  3. Scheidegger  4. Sweeting  5. Englot

Pool C

What a cruel world sports can be, especially those draw gods!  Switzerland's Silvana Tirinzoni and Alina Paetz are drawn into Pool C this week.....merely a few weeks after Tirinzoni destroyed her Swiss counterparts (including Binia Feltscher) to claim the #PyeongChang2018 ticket.  And now the two rivals get to play one another, possibly in an elimination game near the end of the RR, this week as well.  Tirinzoni has qualified in 3 of 5 events this season and, outside the Swiss Olympic Trials victory, also claimed a title earlier in the season (Stu Sells Oakville) plus reached the QF at the Tour Challenge.  Paetz has been even more consistent, qualifying in all 4 events played and winning the Stockholm Ladies Cup prior to the Swiss trials.  Both of these teams are threats to emerge from this pool and could make playoff runs.

But watch out for 2014 Olympic champ Jennifer Jones of course.  Jones also sports a perfect qualification record for the season, going 5 for 5 with 2 championship final appearances.  Of course Jones also happens to be the leader in #gsoc wins on the women's side with 13 in total (tied with teammates Jill Officer and Dawn McEwen).  Expect another playoff appearance here.

Two Ontario teams will look to be the dark horse contenders here....and both have a fairly strong resume to support their claim to contender status.  Jacqueline Harrison won the Tour Challenge Tier II last season and, since then, has been a regular on the Tier I circuit.  They have qualified in 3 of 4 events with their best result being a SF finish to start the season in Oakville where they lost to....Pool C opponent Sherry Middaugh.  Middaugh has had an up and down season, reaching the final to start the year in Oakville then going on a DNQ -> SF -> DNQ -> QF run leading up to this event.  Remember this team did reach the Olympic trials final 4 years ago so #TeamUpset seems to be when they shine the best at events.

Projected Standings:  1. Tirinzoni  2. Jones  3. Paetz  4. Harrison  5. Middaugh

Qualifiers:  Team Hasselborg, Team Einarson, Team Tirinzoni, Team Muirhead, Team Homan, Team Jones, Team Scheidegger, Team Paetz

The Masters Women's Championship:  Team Hasselborg def. Team Homan - We get our #TeamWorld vs. #TeamCanada final.  #1 vs. #2 in the world.  And perhaps our upcoming 2018 Winter Olympic gold medal preview.  The storylines will run deep in this match up and expect to see a great game.  These teams have not played one another since the Champions Cup final to end last season and curling fans are dying to see them lock up on the ice once again....why not in another #gsoc final?  The mental game will be what most will watch for and, finally, Anna Hasselborg will see through a full 8 ends, erase the many disappointing tough results in the past (including the Tour Challenge final vs. Sweeting) and claim her first Grand Slam of Curling championship.  It just seems like the question isn't if Hasselborg will win a #gsoc title but when....and Lloydminster in October of 2017 seems to be as good a time as any for the Jeopardy response to the question.

There you have it folks, your #MasterGSOC preview....exclusively brought to you by your friendly neighbourhood curling blog #TwineTime.  Agree with the predictions?  Disagree?  You should know how to find me by now to voice your opinion I hope!

Also, I want to do a quick shout out to the other #wct events going on this weekend.  When Grand Slam of Curling events are on the schedule we often forget there are additional events highlighting the weekend of curling action with MANY outstanding teams competing.

For the men, the Huron ReproGraphics Oil Heritage Classic will take place in Sarnia, Ontario with a field highlighted by Glenn Howard, #TwineTime fam Mark Kean, Mark Bice, Dayna Deruelle, Richard Krell and top contending USA Olympic trials competitors Team McCormick, Team Clark, Team Brown and Team Birr.  We also have the Dave Jones Alexander Keith's Mayflower Cash Spiel in Halifax, Nova Scotia with a strong Atlantic Canada field led by James Grattan, Mark Dacey, Jamie Murphy, Chad Stevens, Stuart Thompson, Kendal Thompson, Jeremy Mallais and Switzerland's Marc Pfister.

On the women's tour, the Gord Carroll Curling Classic in Whitby, Ontario sees a very strong field with Tracy Fleury, #TwineTime fam Danielle Inglis, the streaking Nina Roth, USA up and comer Cory Christensen, Japan's Ayumi Ogasawara and defending World Junior champ Isabella Wrana from Sweden all competing for the title.  And we cannot forget Halifax also playing host to a great women's event, the Dave Jones Stanhope Simpson Insurance Mayflower Classic, with top contenders Colleen Jones, Jill Brothers, Theresa Breen, Stacie Curtis, Mary-Anne Arsenault, Jennifer Armstrong and up and coming PEI team Veronica Smith.

Best of luck and good curling to ALL teams competing on the ice this weekend!