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Eight Ends: Gushue’s return to top form comes at right time in Brier final

Eight Ends is your source for news, notes, insight, and analysis from around the curling world. This week’s edition looks at takeaways from the Tim Hortons Brier in Kingston, Ont.

1st End: Brad Gushue delivered like Purolator when it mattered most shooting an outstanding 97 per cent in Sunday’s Tim Hortons Brier final as Newfoundland and Labrador defeated Alberta’s Brendan Bottcher 7-3. Gushue’s third Canadian men’s curling championship in four seasons couldn’t have come at a better time either. Outside of provincial playdowns, the St. John’s, N.L., club hadn’t won a tournament in 18 months dating back to the Elite 10 in September 2018 at the start of the current Olympic cycle.

Gushue had reached back-to-back Grand Slam finals earlier this season but having all the pieces fall into place had eluded him lately. It also hasn’t helped No. 1 ranked Brad Jacobs of Northern Ontario and No. 2 John Epping of Ontario have been dominating the tour this season leaving scraps for the rest. Gushue entered the week No. 3 in the nation but more than 100 points separated him and Epping. Jacobs has won the past three Pinty’s Grand Slam of Curling men’s titles plus the Stu Sells Toronto Tankard while Epping claimed the Stu Sells Oakville Tankard, Shorty Jenkins Classic and Canada Cup.

“To be honest, we came in here with a little bit of a chip on our shoulder,” Gushue said in the post-game media scrum. “We didn’t get any credit to be one of the favourites. There was a lot of talk about other teams and we were kind of left aside a little bit. We felt we should have been in there, winning two of the last three. I think we were highly motivated this week, more so than we have been in the last two years.”

2nd End: On top of representing Canada at the worlds and booking an Olympic Trials berth, Gushue’s Brier victory also secured a spot in the Humpty’s Champions Cup. Gushue was in danger of missing the Pinty’s Grand Slam of Curling season finale with the Brier serving as his last chance to qualify. (The world championship is the final spot but you can’t get there unless you win the Brier first.)

Just how rare would that be if Gushue did not qualify? Although Gushue himself missed the Masters and the Tour Challenge at the start of the 2016-17 season while recovering from a groin/hip issue, the last time his team didn’t compete in a GSOC event at all was the 2013 Masters. Even that one should carry an asterisk though as it conflicted with the Olympic pre-trials and they would have been there otherwise. Team Gushue has been the model franchise on tour since then winning 10 GSOC event titles plus a pair of Pinty’s Cups as season champions. 

3rd End: Gushue will now represent Canada at the world men’s curling championship running March 28 to April 5 in Glasgow, Scotland. The field has been finalized with some familiar faces including Norway’s Thomas Ulsrud, John Shuster of the United States, double defending champion Niklas Edin of Sweden and Bruce Mouat for the home team. Gushue defeated Edin in the 2017 world final while the tables were turned the following year. We could be looking at a rubber match for gold although Mouat will be aiming high playing in his backyard while Switzerland’s Yannick Schwaller looks to be a dark horse contender. 

4th End: We heard it all week in the media and from the players, this was quite possibly the most stacked Brier ever. It’s something we’ll continue to hear in future Canadian championships, too. The creation of Team Canada and Wild Card entries in recent years added two instant contenders and it also helps the balance of power in the men’s field isn’t as centralized compared to the women’s division. (Among the top seven ranked women’s teams, three are from Manitoba and three are from Alberta).

The top eight ranked men’s teams all reached the Championship Pool and given their resumes you could make a convincing argument just about any of them would be worthy Brier champions. It shouldn’t have been a surprise at the end of Championship Pool play only Manitoba’s Jason Gunnlaugson had been eliminated and four teams had to duke it out via a mess of tiebreakers for the final playoff spot. It’s not ideal but Canada is blessed with incredible depth and competition only makes everyone else better to raise the bar. 

5th End: When your opponent is shooting 97 per cent, you can’t afford to miss anything whatsoever. Not even a half-miss. Unfortunately for Bottcher, who shot a team-low 71 per cent in the final, he fell behind early and was unable to erase the deficit. The now three-time Brier silver medallist started with the hammer — an advantage Bottcher didn’t have in the past two finals — but stumbled out of the gate with a straight rock that sailed through the house and gave up a steal right off the bat. Crashing on a guard with his first skip stone in the second led to just a single point and another wreck in the third allowed Gushue to capitalize with a critical double takeout to count three.

Gushue didn’t give Bottcher much to work with down the stretch either. Bottcher was unable to convert with the hammer and was limited to two more singles with Gushue up by three points and having the last-rock advantage for the final frame. Although Bottcher was able to make Gushue have to throw the final stone of the game, stealing three to force an extra end proved to be impossible with nowhere to hide and an easy open hit iced the game. Bottcher topped the field all week, finishing 10-1 through the pools, and his time will come. Look no further than Gushue, who had to wait until his 13th Brier appearance and two silver medal finishes before winning his first.

6th End: The Brier drought continues for Saskatchewan. It’s been 40 years since Rick Folk hoisted the tankard for the prairie province and Matt Dunstone looked poised to snap the streak carrying his team as the human highlight reel all week. Even though Dunstone ran out of magic Sunday afternoon losing 7-6 in the semifinal against Gushue, he exceeded expectations considering the boom-or-bust season his team has had. Dunstone won his first Grand Slam title at the Masters and finished runner-up at the Stu Sells Oakville Tankard but missed the playoffs everywhere else on tour.

The incredible week saved Dunstone’s season as he entered the Brier ranked 14th in the world and on the outside-looking-in for the 12-team Princess Auto Players’ Championship. Think about that: Dunstone won a Grand Slam this season and nearly played his way out of the Grand Slam series. The cut-off for qualification is Tuesday and once Brier points have been tabulated Dunstone should find an invitation to the Princess Auto Players’ Championship in his mailbox. 

7th End: Jacobs and Epping have been the top of the class this season but their epic clash for the tankard never came to fruition. Instead, their final showdown took place in the tiebreakers Saturday afternoon with only one able to advance to the Page playoffs. Jacobs came out on top 8-4 after ousting defending champion Kevin Koe 8-3 in the morning during the first tiebreaker stage.

Jacobs started with a 1-3 record and made it all the way to Saturday evening’s Page 3 vs. 4 playoff game against Gushue — his third game of the day even. It would have been understandable if fatigue was a factor or just playing with that back-against-the-wall mentality had been draining but Jacobs offered up no excuses in the post-game media scrum: “It was a roller-coaster ride this week, but we battled hard, did everything we could to get ourselves back in this and even though it wasn’t meant to be this year I think we’re going to come out of this a lot stronger.”

8th End: Mike McEwen’s Wild Card team cleaned up at the awards despite missing the playoffs after falling 8-5 in the first set of tiebreakers to Epping. Third Reid Carruthers and lead Colin Hodgson were named to the first all-star team (based on shooting percentages plus media and player votes) while skip McEwen and second Derek Samagalski made the second all-star team. Hodgson also won the Ross Harstone Sportsmanship Award as voted by his peers.