They finally got the cart out of the ditch.
After a midweek swoon that saw them lose three out of five games, the defending Scotties champs, skipped by Rachel Homan, mostly found the range in the second half of their must-win game against Northern Ontario's Tracy Horgan.
With a 6-4 victory, Homan's Team Canada did what was expected of them. They made the playoffs. But just. It took surviving a mistake-filled ninth end where the final faux pas was Horgan's, leading to a fortunate steal of two and control of a game that meant everything; winner to the playoffs, loser out.
Team Canada - which lost twice on Thursday amidst a growing number of puzzling struggles - wobbled out of the gate in this morning's game, too, trailing Horgan's rink by a 3-2 score after five ends. That Horgan had stolen a point in each of the second and third ends against one of the world's best hammer-wielding teams served to punctuate Team Canada's troubles. When a superb sixth end, capped by Homan making a hit and roll to the pin, was turned around by an even better tap back by Horgan - forging a 4-2 lead - it seemed the upset was in the cards.
But, you don't get to be two-time Scotties champions for nothing and Homan bounced back in the seventh, with two to tie it, and after their fortuitous steal in the ninth, defended well to take the win and the fourth and final playoff position. It may have been more of an adventure than expected, but Homan's team avoided becoming the sixth defending champion in Scotties' history to fail to make the playoffs the next year.
Northern Ontario's near playoff berth pours at least a little cold water on one of the arguments put forward by opponents of the Scotties (and Brier's) new relegation/pre-qualification process, which sees four teams (three at this year's Scotties) fighting it out on the first weekend, for the right to take part in the full tournament. One of the criticisms has been that it would be next to impossible for a qualifying team to have a chance, what with having to play three extra games during the week. Horgan's team hit the accelerator as this week wore on, and with the exception of a nervous ninth end against Homan, might well have converted the opportunity into fourth spot.
The rest of this week went fairly well to form, with Manitoba (Jennifer Jones), Alberta (Val Sweeting) and Saskatchewan (Stefanie Lawton) nailing down playoff spots. Jones' 10-5 win over Sweeting, this morning, gave her top spot in the standings, while highlighting the emerging struggles of Sweeting's team, which had won nine straight before losing their final two.
Jones and Sweeting will play again, tonight, with the winner moving directly into Sunday night's championship final. There's a chance that we could see them playing each other a total of three times in three days, as tonight's loser will get a second chance at getting to that final by playing in Saturday's semi-final, against the winner of the 3 vs 4 game.
Even though both Alberta and Manitoba had already secured spots in the 1 vs 2 game, this morning's match up was important. Curlers are no different than NHLers, pro golfers or even you or me on a Tuesday night at the local club. In playing a game, they like to feel comfortable, to have everything just so. With this morning's win Jones and her team get to choose which rocks they will use in tonight's crucial showdown. If you're a curling newbie, it's important to know that not all rocks are created equal. There can be slight and even not so slight differences that can make a big difference in shot selection and execution. Some are slower, some don't curl so much, etc. Through the week, each and every team will have made detailed notes on what those rocks seem to do. Being able to choose the set you like the most is kind of a big deal.
Now, things can change in a Moose Jaw minute in curling, so you never know. But as of right now, you'd have to consider Jennifer Jones and her Manitoba crew as big favourites to win it all. With a record of 10 and 1, the Bisons suffered a midweek loss to Nova Scotia and then responded by running the table, and crushed Alberta this morning. With all that the 2014 Olympic champions have accomplished, you might have expected them to suffer from a letdown this season. That, however, has been far from the case.
Lawton's third place Saskatchewan rink, winners of six of their last seven, have to be ranked number two among playoff teams.
With Alberta losing two straight in blowout fashion and Sweeting struggling mightily with draw weight, at this point, you might rank them fourth, below Homan's foursome. That's if you believe Team Canada has solved what's been ailing them which, really, is tough to know at this point.
Playoff curling lies ahead with key questions waiting to be answered;
Is Saskatchewan peaking perfectly? Can the Manitoba juggernaut be stopped? Is Team Canada back in gear? Can Sweeting rediscover draw weight, leading to an Alberta bounce back?
TONIGHT: Manitoba vs Alberta, 1 vs 2 game
TOMORROW: Saskatchewan vs Team Canada, 3 vs 4 game, followed by semi-final
SUNDAY: Bronze medal game, followed by championship