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Eight Ends: Einarson, Bottcher save best for last at Players’ Championship

TORONTO — Kerri Einarson and Brendan Bottcher’s teams delivered when it mattered most on the Pinty’s Grand Slam of Curling’s greatest stage at the Players’ Championship.

Under bright lights, big city Toronto and in front of an electric crowd at Ryerson’s Mattamy Athletic Centre — the historic venue formerly known as Maple Leaf Gardens — Einarson and Bottcher emerged victorious against the best-of-the-best on tour.

Einarson eked out a 5-4 extra-end victory over Team Anna Hasselborg in the women’s final Sunday to finish a wild turnaround week while Bottcher bested Team Kevin Koe 6-1 in another heavyweight tilt between Canada’s top-ranked men’s clubs.

Here are takeaways from the week that was at the Players’ Championship in Eight Ends.

1st End: Back-to-back for Bottcher

Edmonton’s Team Bottcher scored their second consecutive title in the series after winning their first ever at the Meridian Canadian Open in January. We’d attribute it to the saying of once you win one, the others come in bunches but it has been three months between title victories. Bottcher has been busy in the meantime finishing runner-up to Koe at the Brier.

A rock-solid season and the Players’ Championship victory saw the team jump into second place in the Order of Merit standings just behind the reigning Canadian champions and world silver medallists. Bottcher isn’t just putting in consistent performances but also putting in consistent appearances in finals and that experience under pressure is helping his team deliver.

“We’ve brought our A-game in these finals and that’s just the experience factor, I think, a little bit,” Bottcher said. “It’s awesome that we’ve been this consistent throughout this year. I think that’s what all the top teams are after.”

Bottcher was a perfect 100 percent in the final and none of his shots were better than his last in the first end bouncing in for a double and sitting shot rock buried. That forced Koe, who covered the button in the pre-game shootout to start with the hammer, to come in from the other side. Koe’s shooter rolled under and the steal allowed Bottcher to set the tone of the match.

The final score is misleading though and not indicative of how the game was played. Koe kept it close down the stretch only trailing 2-1 with the hammer in the final frame. The extra four Bottcher points were tacked on as steals when Koe’s final shot failed to get through the wall of guards.

2nd End: 2 down, 16 more to go

Karrick Martin still has a long way to go to catch his dad on the all-time Grand Slam win list.

The Ol’ Bear Kevin Martin won a record 18 championships during his legendary career. Karrick turns 30 years old next month and has plenty of time to make that happen. Plus, at the rate Team Bottcher is racking up the wins now that may come sooner than you think.

3rd End: Einarson’s epic comeback week

Who doesn’t like a comeback story? It’s not often you see teams qualify for the playoffs with a losing record and it’s even rarer to see them run all the way through to the title. Such was the case for Einarson, who snapped a three-game losing skid with a 7-2 victory over Team Casey Scheidegger to advance to the quarterfinals at 2-3.

The dominant win over Scheidegger was the turning point both in terms of guaranteeing another game but also finishing with a superior draw-to-the-button shootout tally to avoid the tiebreaker with Team Satsuki Fujisawa and Team Rachel Homan also ending pool play at 2-3. Einarson shot 95 percent in the game with her team scoring three pairs of deuces plus a steal while holding Scheidegger to a couple of singles.

It was also a boost for morale as it proved they had been playing well and would finally get the results if they just stuck with their process. Their “worst” loss of the week came against Hasselborg in the round-robin, a 5-2 decision.

“We knew our backs were towards the wall and we really had to find our groove again,” Einarson said. “Every game we started getting better and better. After the Scheidegger game, we just kept rolling. That’s what it takes for a team to just fight back like that and I’m really proud of my team.”

The battle at third was the most compelling storyline in the final with Team Einarson’s Val Sweeting flirting with 100 percent for most of the match and finishing at 90 while Team Hasselborg’s Sara McManus scored a 94. Both of them were team highs.

It’s no secret these skips prefer to hit with Hasselborg only throwing two draws prior to her last in the extra end and Einarson forcing her to try and toss a tricky one in order to secure shot rock. Hasselborg missed the mark and Einarson didn’t even need to fire her last.

4th End: Odd fact

Mike McEwen’s team finished runner-up in the Players’ Championship at Mattamy Athletic Centre in 2013, 2015 and 2017. Even though the team is no more, given that it’s another odd year, it shouldn’t have been a surprise that former third B.J. Neufeld wound up in the final, now playing with Team Koe, and had to settle for second place once again.

It’s an odd coincidence but perhaps the ghosts of Maple Leafs past are aware Neufeld is a Jets fan. (It’s the only plausible theory.)

5th End: Homan captures Pinty’s Cup early

Team Homan had a seemingly insurmountable lead for the Pinty’s Cup entering the Players’ Championship. Only Hasselborg and world champions Team Silvana Tirinzoni still had a chance and they needed to win the final plus have Homan either win just one or none of her games.

That was quite the ask and Homan’s two round-robin wins were enough to clinch the title ahead of schedule.

Homan entered the Players’ Championship winning three consecutive Pinty’s Grand Slam of Curling titles, including a record 10th women’s championship at the Meridian Canadian Open, but the streak was snapped when the team fell in the tiebreaker to Fujisawa to miss the playoffs.

It’s incredible Homan was even competing given both her and second Joanne Courtney are pregnant and due shortly after the season ends. Courtney stepped out of the lineup for their final two games to rest with Edmonton skip Laura Walker subbing. Courtney will also sit out for the Humpty’s Champions Cup, where Homan is the double defending champion, with Jolene Campbell filling in at second.

6ixth End: Toronto, stand up

It was a busy week for sports, especially in Toronto with all their teams in action, but that didn’t deter fans from showing up and filling Ryerson’s Mattamy Athletic Centre.

The Players’ Championship has sunk roots at the venue as this was the fifth consecutive season and sixth time in seven years in Toronto and the fan support continues to grow.

“I think over the years Toronto has been given a bad rap about not being great fans for curling, well, I’ve got news for you, even here on a Tuesday night the place was half-full,” skip Glenn Howard said at the start of the week. “The fans are amazing. You talk to anybody from across the world and they want to come here and play. Being here in Toronto, downtown Toronto, and to this building is surreal and it’s fantastic. So glad that we keep coming here for the Players’.”

That’ll continue next season with the event returning to Mattamy Athletic Centre in 2020.

7th End: No title wins? No problem

Koe walked away with the largest paycheque banking a total of $99,000 for finishing runner-up at the Players’ Championship and capturing the men’s Pinty’s Cup.

Team Koe, who also finished second at the Canadian Beef Masters, became the first men’s team to win the overall season points title without winning an event but it’s a testament to the team’s consistency.

“It’s pretty, pretty amazing the year we’ve had just from the Brier, our worlds run and to win that Pinty’s Cup and a very consistent and pretty special year,” Koe said. “It’s going to be tough to duplicate it again.”

The Calgary crew also spent roughly 12 hours at home following the world championship in Lethbridge, Alta., before jetting to the Players’ Championship. Sleep is overrated anyway, right?

8th End: No awkwardness on Team Jacobs

Curling is an odd sport when it comes to free agency with roster shuffles happening before the season even ends. Players are already talking and once one team makes a move, the rest of the dominoes start to fall as no one wants to be left without anything on the go. It also helps for teams to have their lineups set so they can focus on training and tracking down sponsors during the off-season.

Team Brad Jacobs had already announced they were parting ways with Ryan Fry, bringing in Marc Kennedy, but it didn’t take long for the third to find a new landing spot with Team John Epping, who announced the addition on the eve of the Players’ Championship. Epping cut lead Craig Savill with second Brent Laing and third Mat Camm both shifting down spots in the order to accommodate Fry.

How is it playing with someone who you know will be your rival next season?

“To be completely honest, it’s not awkward at all because of our situation and it being something that all of us felt the same way about,” Team Jacobs second E.J. Harnden said. “We joked, the first game we got off the ice and as soon as we got here, we’re like nothing feels different whatsoever and that’s great. For us, we truly are great friends and we know that our friendship is going to maintain and last long after this season is over.”

Extra End: Running back to Saskatoon

There’s just one event remaining on the 2018-19 Pinty’s Grand Slam of Curling calendar with the Humpty’s Champions Cup wrapping up the season April 23-28 at Saskatoon’s Merlis Belsher Place. It’s a clash of the champions pitting the top winners of the year in one final showdown before our summer break.

Due to a conflict with the world mixed doubles championship though, there will be a number of spares in the field including Eve Muirhead subbing for Anna Hasselborg and John Morris in for John Shuster. Check out our team pages for the full lineups.

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