The 2016 Scotties Tournament of Hearts will reach the pivotal point of the week-long event on Wednesday: Moving Day! No, none of the teams are moving to Grande Prairie, Alberta (that I know of anyway) and I don't believe any of the teams have talked about the upcoming free agency, similar to the other Canadian sport played on ice, in the off-season. Moving Day represents those important middle of the week games where a 2-0 day could jump you up the standings but an 0-2 day could end your Scotties dreams.
This year's Scotties was dubbed "Expect The Unexpected" based on the results during the provincial/territorial playdowns...and it has lived up to the mantra. We had home town delight early on, struggles from the overwhelming favorites, surprise results and, overall, outstanding curling. For those fans who were worried this year's Scotties would be a dud....boy have you missed out on the fun!
As the tournament enters the dramatic final few draws and playoffs, let's see where we stand. What (or who) has been the stellar standout so far this week? Who is coasting along? And what has been the biggest disappointment? It's time to grab big red (Sharpie marker I mean....don't get dirty on me now folks) and make some tough calls. Remember, the teacher can't love everyone and results speak for themselves!
Prairie Pride - The three prairie provinces have come to play this week and are looking to keep the title out west. Alberta, playing as home favorites, dominated play at the beginning of the week using big hits, clutch draws and smart strategy to get the best of their opponents. The opening win over Canada put them in the driver's seat early but the win over Northern Ontario Monday evening made a statement that Chelsea Carey is ready to win her first Scotties. They have hit a bit of a snag the past few days with some losses but still look to be one of the strongest teams on the ice each draw. But hold the celebration, Saskatchewan and Manitoba are also representing #PrairiePride quite well. Kerri Einarson's Manitoba rink was expected to make some noise this week. They started well but could not find consistency, winning then losing. In a round robin like the Scotties, putting together back-to-back-to-back strong games and wins is the difference between going home and playing for a title. Well enter #MovingDay and Einarson knocks off former Buffalo rival Carey and has a two-game winning streak. Speaking on streaking (again, not what you are thinking...how you watch curling in the privacy of your own home is your business), Saskatchewan has the same issue. Skip Jolene Campbell has been curling lights out in some games, with big runbacks and double takeouts but then in other games looks a bit out of sorts. However, for all three skips, when you look at the percentages they are all in the Top 5, with Carey leading the pack. The Prairie Pride is strong in Grande Prairie and we could end up seeing all 3 in the playoffs by the weekend.
Eh-History - A historical moment cannot go unnoticed in this blog. Sure it was mentioned in the preview blog post but it is worth repeating. Congratulations once again to Team Nunavut!! Not only did the newest territory send their first ever team to the Scotties, they win their first ever game in their first ever draw. That's a lot of firsts! Sure the curling percentages were low. Sure the game was a struggle. Sure, perhaps the story was more on B.C. failing to execute more than Nunavut precision curling....but it really doesn't matter how it happened does it? It happened! Nunavut would go on to lose their next two games to their Territorial counterparts and would be denied a shot at competing on the grand stage in front of cheering fans and media but this is a step in the right direction. Nunavut will hopefully be back next year, whether it is this team again or not remains to be seen. But for right now, February 2016, all curling fans can join together and celebrate the historic win for the Nunavut Territory. Congratulations Geneva Chislett, Denise Hutchings, Robyn Mackey, Jenine Bodner and alternate Sadie Pinksen (also making more history being the youngest ever Scotties competitor at 16 years old). #growthesport
Welcome Back - Ah the Welcome Back club! Northern Ontario's Krista McCarville and Quebec's Marie-France Larouche have both taken leaves from competitive curling over the past few years but curling fans have welcomed and embraced these former Scotties stars back onto the ice this week. As predicted in the #TwineTime Scotties Preview, McCarville really has been the story of the event so far. Her team has been full on #stealpants so far. Through 11 draws, Northern Ontario has stolen points in 11 ends, averaging just over one steal per game. Need a comparison stat, defending champs Team Canada has a Scotties low 2 ends stolen. Not impressed yet? Ok, how about the fact those 11 ends have resulted in 16 points (including the amazing win over Nova Scotia where they stole 2 in 10 to tie and 2 in 11 to win). Impressed now? Yeah, I thought so! #MooseHunting season has begun as teams are desperately fighting to stave off this offensive team. And what about La belle province? Larouche also finds herself in the playoff hunt (again predicted by #TwineTime). The story on Larouche in the past was too many messy ends would cost her games. This year she is trying to play a more wide-open style and not get bogged down in too many ends where she is facing lots of rocks in play and needing circus shots to score some points. For the most part the strategy is working. There are still a few games she may have let slip away but more on final execution than strategy. If Larouche can come out in her remaining games with the strategy that has worked this week and the execution that has worked in the past, don't underestimate a playoff run over the next few days. Unfortunately, the welcome back parade isn't all praise though. Ontario's Jenn Hanna has struggled this week in her return to the Scotties. Was their too much pressure and press and attention on this team after upsetting Rachel Homan in the Ontario final? Was it too much of a distraction? Who can really say I suppose. Regardless, the Hanna team that looked so precise and on fire during the Ontario Scotties has yet to really show their potential in Grande Prairie. They did hand Alberta their only loss so far this week Tuesday night though so perhaps the tides are changing for them? The team is not out of the playoff picture by any means but cannot afford slip-up losses to teams like Newfoundland and New Brunswick in their next few games knowing they end with the daunting, media-hyped rematch with Jones and then the all-Ontario battle with McCarville.
C is for Concern? Consistency? Canada? - Oh Team Canada, what do we make of you,eh? Jennifer Jones and company came to Grande Prairie as HUGE favorites to run through this field and claim another Scotties title...the record-tying sixth for skip Jones and second Jill Officer. But those thoughts were erased very quickly...in the opening draw by main challenger to the throne Chelsea Carey. Giving up a steal of 4 and allowing a 5 ender in a game does not build confidence coming out of the hack for a long event as the defending champs. The real question mark for the team so far was the loss to Northern Ontario on Sunday evening. Canada seemed to be in control from the beginning of the game. The old strategy of force 1, score 2 worked in Jones favour early on and she seemed ready for big win. However, after being up 6-4 entering end 7, the wheels fell off a bit. Now all credit to Northern Ontario who cranked up their game play to get the win but this is a game where, in the past, I don't think Jones would have lost. We knew Canada would not run the table this week and, as is usually the case, would find 1 or 2 losses early on but it was more in the way they lost. They looked out of sorts opening weekend. C started to mean Concern and not Canada! But, as champions always do, watch out now field. Jones is rolling! She looks confident and, living up to her reputation, when her back is against the wall staring at a 1-2 record on Monday she is in a take no prisoner mode. They have reeled off 4 straight wins and look to be well positioned for a playoff spot. The interesting point will be if Alberta and Northern Ontario can fend them off. Remember, with Jones losing to both Carey and McCarville, she doesn't have the tiebreaker advantage and could find herself in the 3rd seed position if all three continue to win. But hey, maybe Jones just liked the extra pressure on herself to make it interesting. When you have won everything there is to win in the sport, sometimes you need to challenge yourself in different ways. Maybe this is her way to challenge herself mentally? I still wouldn't want to play her anytime soon! As a team, they lead the way curling 86% through 11 draws with the next closest team curling 83% (Ontario).
Disappointment in the Atlantic - Another Scotties and another struggle with most of the teams coming from the Atlantic provinces. Prince Edward Island, New Brunswick and Newfoundland & Labrador have not been able to find the W column this week. Combined they have 5 wins through 11 draws. Not exactly blowing the field away...and they all sit at or near the bottom of the standings. I will say, having watched a few of Suzanne Birt's PEI games, she is playing better than we have seen in the past from her here. But the great shots and better percentage numbers are not equating to wins. Her two wins have come against her two Atlantic cohorts she shares this grade with. Yes her game with Alberta was one of the best games of the week so far...but still a loss. And yes she followed up that tough game with a great game vs. Northern Ontario where they had a 6-3 lead after 4...but again a loss (albeit from an unfortunate burned rock allowing a steal of 4 in end 6). The breaks aren't coming for the Islanders, which is disappointing to see because they aren't curling that bad. New Brunswick and Sylvie Robichaud are not necessarily curling bad but rather having a few bad ends in each game and not being able to recover. Oddly enough, New Brunswick is curling 82% as a team, tied for third overall. They gave up pivotal steals in losses to Northern Ontario, PEI and Alberta. They had 1 or 2 bad ends leading to multiple points in losses to Canada and Saskatchewan. Add in the offensive struggle of only having 1 end all week where they scored more than 1 or 2 points (a 3 vs. PEI and they still lost) and you can see why they sit at the bottom of the standings. Newfoundland also has struggled on the ice. The lack of competitive curling, especially against a field of this caliber, has shown in some of their games. They are a team who are also struggling on offense. Similar to New Brunswick, they are having problems generating the multiple point ends while also giving up more multiple ends than forces or steals. However, when they have found those 2 or 3 enders in a game, they turned them into victories (vs Quebec and BC). The tough spot for them is they need to generate a few wins to avoid relegation. Having lost to New Brunswick and PEI, they can't sit on the bottom with them. Luckily the win over BC may just save them for next year. Worth noting, it isn't all bad out East...Nova Scotia is exceeding expectations and could make a surprise run to the playoffs. Jill Brothers missed the team's opening draw loss to Saskatchewan due to being sick but seems quite healthy now winning 4 of their last 5. Imagine Nova Scotia playing for the title? How is that for #ExpectTheUnexpected?
Back-to-Back...Relegation? - Oh British Columbia, what has happened to your province? The Scotties titles of Linda Moore, Julie Skinner, Kelley Law and Kelly Scott seem to be WAY in the distant past right now. Karla Thompson's team is struggling and will be lucky to survive the relegation bestowed onto B.C. a season ago. I am not so sure this is that big of a surprise either. Remember this team did make history at the pre-qualification event on Day 1, losing to Nunavut. But yet, they did survive pre-qualification and had an extra 4 games under their belts before their 1st official round robin game for the Scotties. The little issues on curl, handle release, weight, ect should have been fixed by now. Overall the team is curling 75%, ranking last on the percentage list. Thompson's team have an event worst -18 in the Points For/Points Against category. Hard to win games when, on average, you only score 5 a game but allow 8. They are also giving up at least 2 points per game in steals. The offense isn't there. The defense is lacking. The results show. They do have the nice win over Quebec but losses to fellow struggling team Newfoundland won't help them. They end their Scotties with games against PEI, Northern Ontario, New Brunswick and Canada. If they cannot win at least 1 of those games (especially against New Brunswick Thursday afternoon), back to relegation they go. British Columbia is tied for second with the most Scotties wins (9) and has the second most podium finishes in Scotties history (27). Wow how the mighty have fallen!
There you have it folks. A smaller blog post this week but the main focus in the curling world is on the Scotties. I hope all of you have been enjoying the action on the ice, whether in person, on TV or online. As always, feel free to share your feedback with me either in the comments section below or via twitter. The end of the week is going to be fun. Do we see the favorites start to pull away or will we get one last "Expect the Unexpected" result come Sunday?