Team Wild Card Three alternate Wayne Middaugh makes a shot as he plays Team Saskatchewan at the Brier in Calgary, Alta., Friday, March 12, 2021.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh

Middaugh leads championship pool at the Brier

Middaugh leads championship pool at the Brier

CALGARY — Craig Savill recalls a mantra that Wayne Middaugh followed back when they were teammates.

“He always said, ‘The round robin is for practising. The playoffs are for real.’”

It’s a line that should make other teams shudder at the Canadian men’s curling championship.

Middaugh was one of the top skips in the preliminary round at the Tim Hortons Brier and isn’t letting up now that the championship pool is underway. He guided Wild Card Three to a 9-5 victory over Saskatchewan’s Matt Dunstone on Friday afternoon at the Markin MacPhail Centre.

The result left the veteran skip in sole possession of first place at 8-1 and made him a good bet to make the three-team playoff cut on Sunday.

“You try and exceed your own expectations every day and we’ve done that so far,” Middaugh said. “Just the thought of Sunday is still two days away for us. We’re just going to try to get through today.”

Wild Card Two’s Kevin Koe and Alberta’s Brendan Bottcher were next at 7-2. Bottcher needed an extra end to complete an 8-7 victory.

In the other afternoon games, Northern Ontario’s Brad Jacobs defeated Canada’s Brad Gushue 7-2 and Manitoba’s Jason Gunnlaugson edged Ontario’s John Epping 7-6. Those rinks joined Dunstone in a five-team logjam at 6-3.

“We’ve put ourselves in a spot where every game is a must-win to stay in the tournament,” said Manitoba second Matt Wozniak. “I’m sure it’s going to get bunched up … but we’ve just got to win every game. That’s all we’re focused on right now.”

Middaugh, meanwhile, never trailed after scoring four points in the third end. Dunstone flashed his final throw in the 10th to give Middaugh a steal of two and the victory.

Middaugh, a three-time Tim Hortons Brier champion, is making his competitive return at the WinSport Arena after a five-year absence. He’s filling in for injured skip Glenn Howard on the Ontario-based team.

“With the leadership of Glenn Howard, this team has embraced our roles,” Middaugh said. “We’re doing everything we can and we’re staying right with (the others).”

Another draw was scheduled for Friday night. Championship pool play continues through Saturday evening.

The top three teams will advance to Sunday’s playoffs. The second- and third-place teams will meet in an afternoon semifinal with the winner facing the top seed in the evening final.

Savill won Brier and world titles in 2012 on a team with Middaugh, second Brent Laing and Howard at skip. He recalled that Middaugh would sometimes take a few games to find his rhythm and would always bring his game up when it counted.

“What’s scary is Wayne is already playing really well and he’s only going to get better as this weekend goes on,” Savill said.

Middaugh is making his first Brier appearance since 2013. He was inducted into the Canadian Curling Hall of Fame last year.

The 53-year-old native of Victoria Harbour, Ont., underwent surgery to repair a broken leg after a ski crash in early 2016. Middaugh, who had a titanium rod inserted into the leg, thought his competitive curling career was over.

He moved into coaching a few years ago and still plays a weekly game with Howard and their wives at the local league level.

Middaugh originally planned to serve as an alternate at the Brier. He switched roles with Howard after the veteran skip suffered a variety of injuries in a recent snowmobile crash.

The experienced Middaugh hasn’t missed a beat. His ice-reading skills remain superior, his trademark competitive spirit never left and he’s delivering quality shots at will.

His presence also seems to have raised the play of third Scott Howard, second David Mathers and lead Tim March.

Middaugh threw at 91 per cent Friday afternoon and was the low man on the team, which shot 94 per cent overall.

Making the rink all the more dangerous is there’s little pressure given that they were not expected to be in the mix on the final weekend.

So how does it feel playing with so-called house money?

“We’re the wild card baby,” Middaugh said with a smile.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 12, 2021.

Follow @GregoryStrongCP on Twitter.

The Canadian Press

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