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Storylines to follow during 2021 world women’s curling championship

Worlds collide for the final event of the Calgary bubble at the Markin MacPhail Centre.

Fourteen nations clash in the 2021 LGT World Women’s Curling Championship with round-robin play beginning Friday. The format is the same as the men’s worlds with the best six teams advancing to the playoffs and the top two earning byes to the semifinals. The medal round is scheduled for Sunday, May 9.

Also identical to the men’s worlds is Olympic qualification for the top six countries towards the 2022 Winter Olympic Games in Beijing. Falling short here means having to play in an extra last-chance qualification event in the fall, which isn’t ideal and best to avoid.

Here are the top storylines to follow during the week:

Canada all tuned up

It’s fitting Canada’s Kerri Einarson captured the Princess Auto Players’ Championship as her team appears all revved up and ready to go for the worlds.

Einarson, from Gimli, Man., has had a bubble run for the ages starting with a second consecutive Scotties Tournament of Hearts title win in February, claiming the Canadian mixed doubles championship with Brad Gushue last month and a successful title defence in the crown jewel Pinty’s Grand Slam of Curling event this past weekend.

You could say Team Einarson’s biggest threat to world domination isn’t even in the event. Rachel Homan has formed quite the rivalry with Einarson in the bubble. Team Einarson edged Team Homan in the Scotties Tournament of Hearts and Princess Auto Players’ Championship finals, while Homan topped Einarson in the Humpty’s Champions Cup semifinals en route to winning her record-extending 11th Grand Slam women’s title.

“I think we’ve just got to keep with our processes, doing small things and keep communication up,” Team Einarson second Shannon Birchard said Sunday after winning the Princess Auto Players’ Championship. “It’s a long stretch here in the bubble and a long stretch with each other, so just make sure we’re doing the right things for ourselves and for each other out there.”

Team Einarson won their first Scotties Tournament of Hearts together last year and were set to represent Canada when that event in Prince George, B.C., was cancelled at the last minute due to COVID-19. Even when they repeated as Scotties champions, it was still a question mark as to whether the women’s worlds would take place until the event was tacked onto the end of the bubble docket. Now, they’ll finally get the opportunity to take on the world with the Maple Leaf on their back.

“We’re so excited to be able to wear our jerseys this time,” Birchard said. “The bubble’s been super safe so far and we’re just so confident that things are going to go well next week. We’re just going to try and carry on and keep doing what we’ve been doing.”

The only question you could raise against Team Einarson is a lack of experience on the world stage outside of Birchard, who won gold as the alternate for Jennifer Jones at the 2018 world women’s curling championship in North Bay, Ont. Considering the event is taking place in the Calgary bubble without fans in the stands though, it should feel just like any of the previous bubble tournaments. They also have Heather Nedohin on the bench to help guide them through unfamiliar territory. Nedohin has been on the international stage before as a two-time world bronze medallist.

“She’s a fantastic wealth of knowledge to be able to have with us out there for worlds,” Birchard said. “She definitely keeps the mood light and keeps us laughing as well. She’s super smart about the game, so she’s been a fantastic addition to our team.”

Can the Swiss repeat?

Silvana Tirinzoni and her Swiss squad are the reigning world champions and should be playing until the final day once again.

Tirinzoni finished runner-up to Homan in the Humpty’s Champions Cup and was a semifinalist in the Princess Auto Players’ Championship, again falling to Homan. The good thing for Tirinzoni is she isn’t going to have to face Homan in the worlds and went 4-1 in the Pinty’s Grand Slam of Curling events against teams competing in the worlds including decisive 10-3 victories over Einarson and Tabitha Peterson from the United States.

The key to Team Tirinzoni is fourth Alina Pätz, who is the star closer for the squad and a world champion skip in her own right.

Hasselborg’s quest for gold

Anna Hasselborg and her Swedish team were hoping to pick up where they left off in the Pinty’s Grand Slam of Curling aiming for an unprecedented fourth women’s title. Nobody could have predicted that not only would they miss the playoffs in the Humpty’s Champions Cup, but go winless as well at 0-4.

The reigning Olympic gold medallist Hasselborg explained on the Inside Curling podcast her team struggled to switch from practice mode to the competitive level. Seeing as how it was their first major tournament in 15 months, that’s quite understandable. Team Hasselborg found their footing in the Princess Auto Players’ Championship reaching the semifinals — losing to Einarson — and looking more like themselves again.

Hasselborg has earned silver at the past two women’s worlds with just gold missing from her resume.

Rebound for Peterson, Muirhead?

Team Peterson was also out of sorts during the back-to-back Pinty’s Grand Slam of Curling events with a combined 1-8 round-robin record including the aforementioned 10-3 rout at the hands of Team Tirinzoni. Eve Muirhead and her Scottish squad missed the playoffs in both tournaments too with a combined 3-7 record, but the 2013 world champion is a perennial contender making her ninth appearance. With Olympic qualification on the line, neither team can afford another setback. Perhaps having worked through the rust and adjusting to the bubble could lead to better results this time around.

Who are the sleeper picks?

RCF’s Sergei Glukhov was the wild card at the men’s worlds and likewise, it’s best not to sleep on Alina Kovaleva in the women’s worlds. Kovaleva’s club made it to the quarterfinals in the Humpty’s Champions Cup and almost beat Tirinzoni but lost 8-7 in an extra end.

Eun-Jung Kim and her South Korean crew make their comeback to the world stage to complete the redemption story. The 2018 Olympic silver medallists gained worldwide fame as the “Garlic Girls” but stepped back from the competitive scene accusing their coaches of abusive treatment. They’ll be coming into this event cold, though, but they’re capable of contending.

Daniela Jentsch and her team from Germany are typically just on the outside looking in as contenders but at this point, the question remains if they can compete at all after two members tested positive for COVID-19.