BRANDON, Man. — The two frontrunners at the Canadian men’s curling championship are travelling different paths.
Northern Ontario’s Brad Jacobs and Alberta’s Kevin Koe won their opening games of the championship pool Thursday to stay unbeaten in eight games at the Tim Hortons Brier.
Jacobs dominated as his team has done for much of the tournament in an 11-6 win over B.C.’s Jim Cotter. Northern Ontario won a sixth game that didn’t go beyond eight ends.
Outplayed for most of the game by Brendan Bottcher’s wild-card team, Koe pulled a rabbit out of a hat scoring three in the 10th for a 7-6 win.
“That’s a big break. A big win. We got outcurled for sure,” Koe said.
Alberta has had to work harder than Northern Ontario to preserve its streak.
“We’ve still got some room to improve,” Koe said. “A few key shots here and there. I think that’s kind of what we’re used to, is getting better as the week goes.”
A nose hit to score five on B.C. in the third end gave Northern Ontario a formidable 7-2 lead.
The five-rock rule new to the Brier this year is designed to increase chances of a comeback, but the Jacobs team apparently didn’t get that memo.
“A nose hit for five and we were able to cruise to a pretty easy win from there,” said Jacobs, who insisted it hasn’t been all clear sailing.
“There still has been some stressful times. We’ve had some misses,” the skip said. “We’ve faced a little bit of adversity here and there, but we welcome any setbacks, any challenges, any adversities this week.
“When you face adversity it means you’re learning and you’re growing and we welcome the challenge. We’re ready for it. In my mind right now, we can’t fail.”
Between Thursday’s afternoon and evening draws, Jacobs, third Ryan Fry and lead Ryan Harnden held batting practice between the ice sheets using a tennis ball and the broom shaft as a bat.
Defending champion Brad Gushue doubled Manitoba’s Mike McEwen 6-3 to get to 7-1. Edmonton’s Bottcher fell to 6-2 with the loss to his Alberta rival.
Ontario’s Scott McDonald improved to 5-3 with a 7-4 victory over Saskatchewan’s Kirk Muyres. Manitoba, Saskatchewan and B.C. were all 4-4.
The top four teams from the championship pool advance to Saturday’s Page playoff. The winner of the playoff between the top two seeds goes directly to Sunday night’s final.
The loser drops to Sunday afternoon’s semifinal to meet the winner of the playoff between the third and fourth seeds.
This is the second year of the current format that includes two pools for the preliminary round, a championship pool and a wild-card play-in prior to the main draw.
The previous version was jettisoned after three years because of the unpopularity of a pre-tournament qualifier, in which teams played off to get into the main draw.
Teams carry their preliminary-round records into the championship pool.
So Koe and Jacobs brought their seven wins and Gushue and Bottcher their six, while Muyres, McDonald, Cotter and McEwen arrived with four.
The gap created a class of underdogs needing to run the table to make it to Saturday’s final four.
The rinks were more tightly grouped last year in Regina, where six of eight championship-pool teams had five wins or more.
“It’s nice to have that separation because although our goal is to get into the one-two game, you’ve got to get in the playoffs. That’s the main thing,” Gushue said.
“Worst case, you get in the three-four and you can get hot on the weekend and win it.”
Ranked first and sixth respectively on the World Curling Tour, Koe and Bottcher have waged some pitched battles this season.
Bottcher beat Koe in January’s TSN Skins final that was decided by a draw-the-button because of a carry-over in the last end.
Koe ousted Bottcher 7-5 in the provincial semifinal. Bottcher then needed Koe to win the final in order to grab one of two wild-card spots in Brandon. A loss and the wild card would have gone to Koe.
Up 6-4 coming home without hammer and with Koe laying four Thursday, Bottcher executed a corner freeze with his last shot in an attempt to limit Alberta’s score.
But Koe cleared it with his calling-card out-turn hit for a three-pointer.
“We played a poor last end,” Bottcher said. ”With Kevin, he’s always going to leave himself a chance. He made a really good shot at the end there.”