Brad Gushue and Team Canada got off to a strong start in the championship round of the Tim Hortons Brier Thursday, so strong that they quickly guaranteed they'll proceed to the next — and last — level of competition at the Canadian men’s curling championship.
Gushue and his St. John’s team of Mark Nichols, Brett Gallant and Geoff Walker began by downing Reid Carruthers and Manitoba 7-2 in a game that saw the defending Canadian men’s curling champions in control almost from the start.
Their evening matchup against Steve Haycock and the hometown Saskatchewan entry was much tighter, but Gushue and Co. played a clean and efficient game in registering a 5-4 extra-end win.
Those results leave Team Canada with an 8-1 overall record heading into today, when it wraps up championship-round play with games against John Epping of Ontario and Brad Jacobs of Northern Ontario, who both are also at 8-1.
That record is already good enough to guarantee they will be three of the four teams moving on to the Page playoffs, which begin Saturday.
A new format adopted this year means the Brier competition is sort of a whittling-down process.
Sixteen rinks participated in the preliminary round, which saw teams divided into two pools. Eight teams — the top four from each of the two pools — moved to the championship round while taking their records with them.
Teams crossed over to play four games against teams from the opposite pool.
But while Gushue already knows he’s advancing to the Page playoffs, there is a whole lot at stake in today’s matchups against the two Ontario rinks,
A top-two finish in the overall standings gets a team a berth in the 1-2 playoff game, with the winner of that one going directly to Sunday’s final.
“To have those two cracks to get into the final is real important,” said Gushue on Thursday.
The loser of the 1-2 Page Playoffs drops to the semifinal to face the winner of the playoff between the third and fourth seeds.
The semifinal will be played earlier Sunday, so the bronze-medal game has been eliminated from the schedule.
Sunday's champion represents Canada at the world men's curling championship in Las Vegas from March 31-April 8.
Newfoundland and Labrador’s representatives in the Brier, skipped by Greg Smith of St. John’s, didn’t get to the championship round after finishing 1-6 in preliminary play, but have one more game remaining. Smith, Matthew Hunt, Andrew Taylor and Ian Withycome take on Prince Edward Island this morning to determine their final placing and seedings for next year’s Brier.
After that, you can expect them to be cheering on Gushue and Co., and not just because of Newfoundland nationalism.
If Team Canada successfully defends its title, it will mean Gushue’s team won’t participate in the 2019 Tankard provincial men’s championship, giving rinks like Smith a chance to get to the Brier. Prior to this year, Gushue-skipped teams had won the Tankard 11 straight times and 14 of the last 15, the only gap in his Brier-representative streak coming in 2006 when he and Nichols were busy winning Olympic gold for Canada in Italy.