Weekend play in the men’s bracket of the 2021 Canadian Curling Trials offers no surprises. Three of the top four teams in the world remain with a chance to represent Canada in Beijing at the 2022 Olympic Winter Games.
Number one-ranked Brad Jacobs begins with hammer in a semifinal matchup against the fourth-ranked Kevin Koe. The game is now taking place at 2:00 p.m. local time. It was swapped with the women’s semifinal, which will now be played at 7:00 p.m. Central, to allow for the two women’s tiebreakers. What’s unclear is whether the second tiebreaker, which will take place alongside the men’s semifinal, will be video recorded and archived or if it will be played and then cease to exist in the future—apart from a few live TSN updates throughout the game.
These three teams are at the top of the cumulative shooting statistics this week with Team Gushue at 89, Koe at 90 and Jacobs at 92 percent. Koe leads the other two with a +/- of +6, meaning they outperformed their opponents in shooting percentage in all but two games. No surprise, those two games were against Jacobs and Gushue, which resulted in their only two losses.
Koe is 10-10 against Jacobs over the past four years, including their 8-2 loss on Thursday afternoon. Scoring is 98 to 91 in favour of Jacobs over that span. Kevin is now 27-29 overall against Brad and in their last major battle, the 1 versus 2 page playoff at the 2019 Brier, Jacobs gave up a deuce and steal of three en route to a 9-4 shellacking. My calculations have them at dead even but from their play this week and holding hammer in the first end, the slight edge should go to Jacobs.
Please re-read the last sentence out loud to yourself and place emphasize on the word “slight.” I expect a low-scoring contest as both teams will be cautious not to make the one mistake that could cost them the game … but an early deuce could change that storyline as the team that falls behind will need to take greater risks.
Team Gushue can rest until the men’s final hits the ice Sunday at 7:00 p.m. The women’s final is at 11:00 a.m. and apparently the schedule was coordinated around the Canadian Football League’s Saskatchewan Roughriders hosting their division semifinal against the Calgary Stampeders (3:30 p.m.). That’s a long wait for Brad and Mark Nichols to sit with thoughts of a return to the Olympics after 16 years.
There are nine past Olympians out of the 12 players remaining in the men’s competition. With Brad Jacobs and Kevin Koe, that experience feels recent, part of a modern era of the game. Gushue won his Trials spot when the old guy in the TSN booth (Russ Howard) was still playing and runbacks were commonly used as a last resort and not a pre-planned offensive weapon.
Team Gushue has not been perfect this week, with breaks in a few games and some fantastic shotmaking by Brad at times to avoid surrendering big ends. They are only +3 in +/- (Jacobs is +5) with Nichols having an average week by his standards, sitting fourth in percentage and a +/- of zero. Brad is second amongst skips and at +6, having outplayed all but Jacobs and Bottcher during the round robin.
Including this week, Gushue is 16-15 against Jacobs and Koe since the 2018-19 season, with a slight edge against Kevin (10-7). Hammer and first choice of rocks is an advantage, as is avoiding the risk of losing in a semifinal. The old adage that a team gains some advantage by playing the day before rather than resting is, in my opinion, hogwash. Dating back to the 1997 Trials, the men’s winner has never come from the semifinal game. It’s happened twice in the women’s event (2005 and 2017).
After taking care of business in all of their final round robin games last night, these three teams appear to be peaking for the weekend, and also possibly for their careers. This could be the greatest playoff series in men’s curling we’ve seen since Stoughton, Howard and Martin battled in the 2009 Trials—along with a few Briers from that era. Gushue again will have the edge against either team, but again, it will be “slight.”