OTTAWA - We don’t want to get too ahead of ourselves here, but the thoughts of it are too delicious not to contemplate.
Tonight’s final round-robin game of the Roar of the Rings between Brad Gushue and Kevin Koe might well be a prelude to Sunday’s final, with a trip to the 2018 Winter Olympic Games on the line.
Gushue, Mark Nichols, Brett Gallant and Geoff Walker from St. John’s secured themselves a berth in the Canadian Olympic Curling Trials semifinal with an 8-5 win over Steve Laycock of Saskatoon Thursday night at the Canadian Tire Centre in Ottawa.
The semifinal goes 8:30 p.m. (NL time, TSN).
Gushue scored two each in the first and sixth ends, and three in the eighth to improve to 5-2.
Even if Gushue loses tonight (8:30, NL time) to Koe and there’s a tie for second, he still gets a semifinal berth having beaten his nearest competitors in the standings – Mike McEwen and Reid Carruthers of Winnipeg, and Edmonton’s Brendan Bottcher – in the round-robin.
We know what happened the last time Gushue and Koe hooked up in a meaningful game.
Oh boy! Buckle up.
But first, there’s tonight’s game, featuring the top-seeded team, Koe, against the No. 2 foursome, skipped by Gushue.
If you recall, those teams met last March in St. John’s, when Gushue scored a last-shot win over Calgary’s Koe to win the Tim Hortons Brier at Mile One Centre.
The two have faced each other twice since then on the World Curling Tour, with Gushue winning both times, at the Tour Challenge and The Masters.
But tonight’s game is, with all due respect, a “nothing” game. Koe, at 7-0, has punched his ticket to the final, and Gushue is in the semifinal regardless of what happens Friday.
“Certainly, we can go out and be a little bit more relaxed,” Gushue said, “and maybe even work on some stuff.
“It’s been a grind all week, especially for our team starting out the way we did. So maybe we’ll take it back a little and conserve. But I don’t want to take back too much and lose the momentum we’ve built this week.”
Gushue was in the same situation in the 2016 Brier, with second place wrapped up and playing on first-place Brad Jacobs in the next-to-last game of the round-robin.
“We went out a little light-hearted, and didn’t want to show all of our cards,” he said. “Whether we do that this time, I’m not sure.
“But we’ve (Gushue and Koe) been two of the top teams the last three or four years. There’s a lot of pride, and I don’t think anybody is going to go out there and just throw the game.”
Following a slow start to the Trials, Team Gushue has been progressively getting better with each game. The Newfoundland and Labrador foursome opened the event with a 6-4 loss to John Epping. After four games, Gushue and Co. were 2-2.
Since then, however, they’ve peeled off three straight wins over Carruthers, McEwen and Laycock.
And Thursday might have been their best game to date, curling a combined 93 per cent as a team. Gallant has been a force every game lately, curling 98 per cent against Laycock. Ditto Nichols, who was 88 per cent Thursday.
And we may as well throw in Walker, who curled 93 per cent, the same as Gushue.
“I’ve been saying all week that I feel we’re playing better and better, and this by far was our best game,” Gushue said.
“The fact we are playing better, and our confidence is building going into two very tough games is a good sign.”
Adversity is nothing new to this team. It could be said that, other than the world championship last spring when they ran the table going 13-0, they like doing things the hard way.
At the Brier last year, Gushue was 3-2 after five games, and one of those wins was by one point over New Brunswick’s Mike Kennedy. Among those losses was an 8-4 setback in eight ends to McEwen, and a particularly stinging 8-4 setback to Jamie Koe of the Northwest Territories.
Here in Ottawa, the opening-draw loss to Toronto’s Epping was leaving one with the feeling that this may come back to haunt the Newfoundland foursome.
“We faced adversity last year at the Brier, and then when we got to the end of the week, it wasn’t that big a deal because we’d been through it.
“Our backs were against the wall here, too, especially with that second loss (7-4 to Jacobs). But I think now we’re in a good position. We’ve looked at the last three games as do or die, and that’s going to help us Saturday when we have a true do or die.”
The winner of the Trials will represent Canada in the 2018 PyeongChang Olympics in South Korea in February.