Canada's skip Glenn Howard

Canada's skip Glenn Howard

Canada’s Howard alone in first place

Canada’s Glenn Howard has won in blowout fashion and had a few close calls at the world men’s curling championship.

BASEL, Switzerland — Canada’s Glenn Howard has won in blowout fashion and had a few close calls at the world men’s curling championship.

He has come through every time and remains a favourite to play for his fourth career world title on the weekend.

Howard preserved his unbeaten record Tuesday by winning a 7-6 nailbiter over Switzerland before posting an 8-5 win over Denmark. Both opponents are playoff longshots but still gave Howard a stiff challenge ahead of upcoming games against powerhouse rinks Sweden and Scotland.

The three-time world champion said the quality of opposition is so high at the competition that every game is a real test.

“When other teams play well, you can only do so much,” he said. “Everybody keeps thinking you’re supposed to blow people out. You can’t — if the other team makes a lot of shots, that’s the way it works.

“The bottom line is you just try to make one more than the next guy and get those wins.”

Entering with a 1-4 record, Switzerland’s Benoit Schwarz had nothing to lose against Howard. The 20-year-old vice-skip played like it and came tantalizingly close to an upset.

Fuelled by a vocal contingent of about 1,000 local supporters at St. Jakobshalle, the host team forced an extra end before Howard won it with a final draw to the button.

Howard shot just 74 per cent but teammates Wayne Middaugh, Brent Laing and Craig Savill each shot over 95 per cent.

“That’s always been the key to our success,” Howard said. “I really believe that. Very rarely will we ever have two guys falter. One guy might be down a little bit. But that’s the key to our team — one guy gets down and the other three pick him up.”

The Canadian skip then defeated Rasmus Stjerne of Denmark to improve to 7-0.

Schwarz, who threw fourth stones after Swiss skip Jan Hauser, said it was quite intimidating to play one of the sport’s all-time greats.

“I tried not to think about it,” he said. “That almost worked.”

A matchup that looked like a gimme for Canada turned out to be one of the most exciting games of the tournament.

The young Swiss side almost pulled out a win in the 10th end when a triple takeout nearly scored two. The single point tied it but Howard used the hammer to his advantage in the extra end.

“I thought we outcurled them the whole game but still I missed a couple of key ones and they made some great ones coming home,” Howard said. “It ended up being a good, good finish.

“Fortunately we had last rock in the extra end and we capitalized.”

The daunting task of facing the veteran Canadian rink didn’t seem to faze Schwarz at all.

The slight youngster, who won world junior gold in 2010, was remarkably composed throughout. If a shot didn’t go his way, he’d simply flip his shaggy mop of dark hair to the side and carry on.

Even the prospect of a game-ending time-clock violation didn’t ruffle him.

Schwarz was surveying the house before his final shot of the 10th end when his teammates frantically shouted at him to return to the other end of the sheet.

He had a scant 25 seconds to get down the ice, grab the stone and throw one of the biggest shots of his life.

A teammate furiously cleaned the rock while Schwarz raced to the hack. With the fans on edge, Schwarz took one last glance, got in position and released the stone with exactly three seconds left.

He went for the victory and came about an inch away from getting it.

“They called the style of game that they had nothing to lose,” Howard said. “Very aggressive and I didn’t see that coming.”

Switzerland took advantage of a poor Howard draw in the fourth end to score a pair and added a single in the eighth for a 5-4 lead. Canada fought back with two points in the ninth end before the late drama.

“To lose by 10 points or in an extra end is the same,” Schwarz said. “So for sure we’re a bit disappointed.”

Canada moved into sole possession of first place on a day when two of the contenders suffered losses. The United States crushed previously unbeaten Sweden 10-1 and France upset Scotland 5-3.

But Scotland rallied to edge China 7-6 in 10 ends in the late draw to create a three-way tie for second with a 5-2 record. The Chinese and Sweden also have five wins, with the Swedes having lost two straight after dropping an 8-3 decision to Norway in late action.

Norway and New Zealand are tied for fifth with 4-3 records.

Round-robin play continues through Thursday night. The medal games are scheduled for Sunday.

There were pockets of flag-waving Canadian fans throughout the 9,000-seat venue. A group of beaming Howard family members and friends let out a cheer from the top of the grandstand after the victories.

Howard scored two points in the ninth end against Denmark and won it with a single in the 10th. His shooting improved to 86 per cent in the afternoon game, a significant jump from his Switzerland percentage.

“I wasn’t sharp today, I was a little fatigued,” Howard said of his early effort. “I don’t know if the jetlag was getting to me or not. The best news is my guys made everything in front of me.

“They didn’t waver and fortunately I made my last one. But the Swiss boys played really well.”

Canada shot 91 per cent as a team to 80 per cent for Switzerland.

“I think every team can beat every other team,” Schwarz said. “For sure there are some favourites like Sweden, Canada and Scotland. But in the end, in one game anything can happen.”

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