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Inside Einarson’s wild win at the Players’ Championship

One of the first things Kerri Einarson’s club will do once they meet up again in Saskatoon for the Humpty’s Champions Cup: properly celebrate their win from the last Pinty’s Grand Slam of Curling event.

Team Einarson, from Gimli, Man., captured the Players’ Championship just a little over a week ago in Toronto, outlasting Anna Hasselborg’s Swedish squad 5-4 in an extra end during the women’s final, but had to put the champagne on ice and jet home.

Even plans to grab a pre-flight dinner at Pearson International Airport were aborted.

“We rode to the airport and didn’t even clue in the girls were flying a different airline than me so I ended up at the wrong terminal,” said third Val Sweeting, who was travelling home to Edmonton while her teammates were Winnipeg-bound. “We were going to go for some supper, grab a drink and celebrate it but I had to leave; I had to get to the other terminal. I think that we’ll get a chance to do that in Saskatoon because we’ll see each other right away. We’ll get to do it there but that’s all right.”

Considering how their week started, Einarson, Sweeting, second Shannon Birchard and lead Briane Meilleur were just happy they had something to celebrate. It’s not often a team qualifies for the playoffs with a losing round-robin record never mind go all the way to win the prestigious Players’ Championship women’s title where it’s the best-of-the-best teams from the season and everyone at their peak performance.

Such was the case for Einarson, who lost three consecutive preliminary games to Hasselborg, Team Chelsea Carey and Team Sayaka Yoshimura to fall to a 1-3 record. Normally that would eliminate a team in a Pinty’s Grand Slam of Curling event but the Players’ Championship is an exception. Teams play an extra fifth round-robin match in the event and with eight of 12 teams advancing to the playoffs, that allows for some leeway and sets up for some peculiar circumstances.

Fortunately, Einarson and Sweeting had both been in this situation before at the Players’ Championship and clawed out of the hole to qualify, so they didn’t let the grim losing streak deflate their chances heading into their final round-robin game against Team Casey Scheidegger.

“We got back in the dressing room and I just said honestly, I’ve made it into the Players’ Championship (playoffs) at 2-3 before and Kerri said so have I,” Sweeting said. “I’m not sure if the other two quite believed us at the time but then as some of the other games shaped out, we realized if we win and have a pretty good draw for hammer, we would have taken a tiebreaker at that point but we were happy that it all shook out and we were straight into playoffs.”

Team Einarson played almost as perfect a game as you could ask for shooting 91 percent as a unit with their skipping firing a team-high 95 percent to stifle Scheidegger. They scored deuces when they had the hammer, three pairs in total, stole once and forced Scheidegger to singles twice during the 7-2 victory.

“I finally came out with a game that I played really well and my team played really well in front of me, too,” Einarson said. “It’s a really good confidence booster going into playoffs.”

Einarson waited around after the draw to hear how the playoff scenario unfolded as her team, Team Satsuki Fujisawa and Team Rachel Homan all finished tied for the final two playoff spots with 2-3 records. One of them would go straight through to the quarterfinals based on draw-to-the-button shootout scores while the other two would head straight back out onto the ice to face off in a tiebreaker for the No. 8 seed.

Einarson breathed a sigh of relief and exclaimed “Oh god” when she heard her team was the lucky one advancing. Although Team Einarson started with hammer in only two of their five round-robin games, they still ended up with a superior shootout total at 2.00 (second overall) compared to Homan at 5.00 and Fujisawa at 10.00. It just so happened they ran into teams that kept hitting the button or covering the pin during their games.

“At that point, we just had to regroup and really try and keep the momentum from our last round-robin game going into playoffs,” Sweeting said. “I think that’s what we did.”

For the quarterfinals Einarson drew provincial rivals Team Tracy Fleury from East St. Paul and a rematch of an intense Manitoba playdown final. Fleury shook off an early five-ender to rally and win 13-7 and wear the coveted Buffalo patch at the Scotties Tournament of Hearts.

Team Fleury started the rematch with the hammer and had an open hit for two in the first end but only grazed Einarson’s shot rock and gave up a steal instead. Einarson knew they caught a lucky break and pounced on the momentum swing forcing Fleury to a single in the second, scoring a deuce in the fourth and putting the hurt on in the fifth sitting four counters to swipe another single steal when Fleury came up short on the draw.

“It was good we were in control,” said Einarson, who held on to win 6-4. “The first end, she had a hit for two but after that we really put some pressure on them and made them make some big shots.”

Team Robyn Silvernagle awaited in the semifinals. Once again, Einarson didn’t have hammer to start but managed to force Silvernagle to a single in the first. Einarson landed a golden opportunity in the third end with a laser-focused shot navigating through the port to rub and roll in for a deuce.

“Oh my goodness, that deuce was huge and we said before she threw, this is the only way she gives us (a shot),” Sweeting said. “We didn’t really have a shot for two so we were very fortunate to have it. She just nailed it. All I thought was don’t mess up the line call. She threw it really good.”

Tied 4-4 after six, Einarson hit for three points in the seventh and ran Silvernagle out of rocks in the eighth to advance to the final against Hasselborg, who entered the final undefeated in the tournament riding a seven-game winning streak.

Stop me if you heard this one before: Einarson didn’t open the final with the hammer but managed to set the tone regardless. Hasselborg faced two counters on her last of the second end and connected with a hit on one, but after a measurement, Einarson was awarded a stolen point with the second one.

“We felt really comfortable with the ice off the bat,” Birchard said. “We know we’re not going to get a ton of misses out of that team, so to get one early and maybe gain a little bit of momentum on our side was huge. Every time you get a little bit of a lead on a team like that is great. It’s huge.”

Hasselborg rebounded with a deuce in the third and Einarson settled for a single in the fourth to tie it up 2-2 at the break. Back and forth the game swung with Hasselborg having to take a point in five when her hit-and-roll blank attempt landed on the nose and stuck around. Einarson capitalized on that with a draw for a deuce in six to retake the lead 4-3.

That set the stage for the tantalizing eighth end with Hasselborg holding the hammer and poised to score a decisive deuce for the championship. Hasselborg hit and rolled away with her last but shot rock was secured to guarantee at least a tie for an extra end. Second shot was up for debate though with a cluster of rocks lining the right side of the house and no clear consensus. The measuring stick made another appearance with the fate of the game to be determined. Just like the first time, Einarson won the measure and kept her team’s hopes alive with the hammer in the extra end.

“Briane and I weren’t sure who was second shot there in the eighth and Val was pretty sure it was us,” Birchard said. “Trust her eyes, she’s the third.”

Einarson was ready to make a heroic shot to win the game with her last rock of the extra end after already making a sizzling one on her first skip stone inching by the guard to tap Hasselborg’s shot rock and roll under cover into the four-foot circle. She wouldn’t have to though. Hasselborg threw just her third draw shot of the game and although sweepers Agnes Knochenhauer and Sofia Mabergs dragged it to the four-foot circle they came up just short of outcounting Einarson’s stone.

“I was expecting her to make it,” Sweeting said. “We had played that path quite a bit. It was a little bit touchy where if you hit it a bit early it’s not going to curl as much. If you got it perfect you could get it in there.”

Sweeting was so focused on getting ready for their last shot that she didn’t even realize they had already won until Team Hasselborg put out their hands to shake.

“From where I was standing it looked like it was pretty close,” Sweeting said. “We got fortunate there. She had perfect weight, it just didn’t curl enough. We would have had a bit of a tricky shot there but we felt pretty comfortable. Kerri and I had been talking about what she would play. We were definitely prepared to throw that one.”

The Players’ Championship was Team Einarson’s fifth title and ninth final of the season, which is an amazing accomplishment on its own, it’s even more remarkable considering it’s their first season together and former skips Sweeting, Birchard and Meilleur are all playing new positions.

Their other four championships came consecutively early in the season on tour and curling is like most sports where you’re only as good as your last one with their defeats to Fleury in the Manitoba provincial final and Scheidegger in the Scotties Tournament of Hearts one-and-done wild-card game still fresh in minds.

Although that gave them a longer break than they had hoped for, it also allowed them to reflect on their season, realize how fortunate they were it wasn’t over yet, and also fine-tune some things they didn’t have time to work on earlier in the season. Einarson practised a lot with Birchard and Meilleur in Winnipeg and also made the trek out to Edmonton to work with Sweeting.

“Some people might think we had a lull in our season because we didn’t win anything since Thanksgiving and we had such a strong start and all that kind of stuff. We still had a really successful season,” Sweeting said. “Through Thanksgiving until the Players’ we made it to the Canada Cup final, a Slam final, a Slam semi, a provincial final, a wild-card game. As hard as it is to lose all of those finals, we were still in all of them and I think that’s something to be proud of as well. I’d hardly call that a lull because that in itself is successful.

“We just kept battling and I think to play in nine finals in one season, especially for a new team and all of us learning our new positions, I think that’s really impressive. We took everything that we learned in all of those games that we played and just applied it at the Players’ Championship. There was just a sense of calmness out there in that final. We got lucky in eight that she rolled out on her last one and got fortunate on the measure. We just took a breath and went into the extra. We had some things go our way but we also played well and that’s kind of how it goes sometimes.”

The time to celebrate has come at the Humpty’s Champions Cup, but they’re also looking to carry that momentum into the season finale.

“Going into Champions Cup, it’s pretty huge to win something this big,” Einarson said. “We’re going to take this momentum going forward and just play like we can.”