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Monday, December 12, 2011

Clash of (Curling) Titans

Sometimes in life, we are surprised.  The gift we receive not for a birthday or Christmas, but because someone was thinking of us.  The girl we thought never noticed us actually flashes a smile back.  Adam Sandler makes a movie which is entertaining and aimed at an audience over 14.  Most often, however, we are not surprised. The gift only comes at Christmas, and it’s socks or an itchy sweater.  The girl is actually smiling at the guy standing behind you.  And Adam reaches new lows in his latest rankings.

The first Canada Curling Olympic Trials spots, given to the winners of the 2011 CCA Canada Cup, provided little in the way of surprises. 

Jennifer Jones produces a deuce in the final end of the final round robin game to slink into the last play-off spot with a 3-3 record, and then proceeds to dismantle the competition in her next two contests.  The Jones rinks’ mediocre play followed by a dominating play-off performance is no longer a surprise.  The Chelsea Carey team by way of their 5-1 record will no doubt be a team of the future, and they will likely learn from the poise seen in the Jones rink for that final game.  Jennifer has been there before and it showed.  Congratulations and good luck in two years!

The Men’s Canada Cup final also left no surprises.  Martin versus Howard in an epic battle with Kevin the victor and Glenn, once again, falling just short.  Team Howard, the Buffalo Bills of curling these past few years, took early advantage of some Martin misses and appeared to be in position to shake their recent past. But a key deuce in the 5th end followed by a Howard single in the 6th gave Martin control and he held on for the win.   A very entertaining game which included many interesting moments.

In the first end Glenn elects to draw into the rings and Martin forgoes the corner guard to hit and stick on the nose.  Seriously?  The end produces a blank and if you just arrived from a tropical island and were watching the first game of curling in your life you’d wonder what all the fuss was about.  Was Kevin trying to establish hammer in the “even ends” (a theory which is not supported by statistics)?  Was Glenn expecting Kevin to hit out the first end?  Do these two teams really still get butterflies in a big game and both skips wanted to work them out by playing it simple?  Should I really be spending these many words discussing such a boring end?  Probably not.

In the second end, Glenn brings his first rock again into the rings and Kevin throws up the corner guard.  Game on.  Some great shot making until an uncharacteristic miss by Martin third John Morris on a possible corner freeze allows Glenn to jump on the offensive, and he comes heavy.  Glenn makes no mistake on his final shot of the end however, able to corner freeze perfectly and produce a steal of one.

In the 3rd end, John Morris is six feet light on his final shot and we wonder if that is the same stone that was light in the last end.  Glenn makes a great shot and Kevin is heavy on his next.  The Howard Team gathers to discuss Glenn’s final shot and third Wayne Middaugh immediately identifies that if Kevin raises the red guard perfectly and catches his red stone in the top eight foot, he can score two.  

Martin is Red

This decision on this shot is so riveting that Martin coach Jules Owchar pulls out super spy binoculars to see what is happening.

They decide to leave Martin the difficult shot for two and instead block off the draw.    Kevin doesn’t hesitate and immediately calls for the run-back, which he makes.  Commentator Russ Howard agreed with his brother Glenn’s call, stating that if Kevin can get two out of it he deserves it.  So is it the right call?

We can attempt to determine the odds we believe Kevin needs to be successful in order to choose guarding the raise over the draw.

Let’s assume if Glenn doesn’t guard the centre he simply guards the raise. Kevin still has to make a draw on very swingy ice to get a piece of the button.  Let’s estimate a 90% success rate by Kevin to score one.

Martin Win % = .9(.39) + .1(.26) = 41%

Let’s assume if Martin plays the raise (as he did) he either takes 2 or Howard steals one.  There appeared a small chance that Howard could steal two but Kevin would need to make a very poor shot and get unlucky.

Martin Win % = 41% = x(.57) + (1-x)(.26)

x = .48

Kevin needs to be successful more than 48% of the time to make Howard want to guard the raise.  What would we expect Kevin’s chances in that situation to raise a rock 5 feet and hit between ¼ to ½ a rock?  I would suspect it is close.

The other potential shot was for Glenn to play a soft raise hit on his own rock in the top eight foot, removing the Martin stone, and lying first, third and fourth.  I like this shot as an attempt to remove the raise and block the draw.  The risk is that the rocks roll into a favorable position for Martin.  In hindsight (with the advantage of time and slow motion video to examine), this appears to be the preferred choice, but I don’t fault Glenn for the original call.  His objective is to try and steal, take control of the game, at the risk of a Martin deuce and being one down with hammer.

It’s the 4th end of a ten end game and somehow the sense is we’ve only just gotten started.  An eight end game would seem more urgent.  Numbers show that Glenn has a 43% chance to win and if in the 4th end of an 8 End game, it would decrease to 40%.

Tied 2-2 in the 5th and Howard gets into some trouble.  Wayne misses the raise double take-out, leaving his shooter as a center guard.  Kevin elects to have third John Morris draw to the side, to sit two.
Martin is Red

There are 6 rocks still to come and Glenn has to decide how he wants to approach the rest of this end.  They discuss a runback but recognize if he makes it perfect they aren’t shot.  I don’t like trying to remove the center, it may be needed later on.  Another option could have been a freeze to the back stone but to be shot they would have to be very precise and would likely leave a simple hit and stick double to lay two.  Glenn could also try to draw to the centre, even perhaps back four foot, in an attempt to move play back to the centre and create a force or even a possible steal, but at the risk of giving up a big end.  They eventually choose to hit the Martin stone and try to roll towards the middle.  Wayne unfortunately rolls out of the rings.  John makes the draw again, and Glenn chooses to again try a hit and roll on his first but noses.  Kevin now is able to play a freeze and make Glenn’s final decision even more difficult.
Martin is Red

Howard decides to play a hit and stick (the roll attempt would have jammed the Martin stone on the back yellow).  Kevin is left with a simple hit and stick for his deuce and a 4-2 lead.  Kevin is now 76% likely to win the game.  Could Glenn have taken a different approach to the end?  If Kevin scores three, Howard drops to an 11% average chance to win and likely suspects it is lower than this “average” statistic in this situation.  The hit and roll attempt by Wayne is attempting to bring play to the centre while also removing a Martin stone as an “in case” scenario (such as, in case we give up more than one it will not be three).  If this is the 5th end of an 8 end game I don’t believe the decision is nearly as close, he has to draw.  A deuce with 3 ends remaining would drop Glenn to 19%.  Even here in a ten end game, I would prefer Glenn tries to draw on Wayne’s last or on skips first, to the back four foot, to bring the play to the middle.  Possibly while trying to tap the Howard rock, Martin would leave more rocks in the area which could help Glenn later in the end.  The question to be answered is, would you rather accept being 2 down to Kevin Martin with 5 ends to play or aggressively try to force or steal at the risk of ending things right now.  Howard decided the two was acceptable.  Here’s the troubling statistic: Martin is (in his small sample size) much higher than 76% when leading by two after 5 ends.  In the range of 95%.  Glenn is a much stronger team than the average competition and should rightfully consider his chances are better than 5% against Kevin is this situation, but by how much?

After not playing aggressive in the 5th end, Howard goes all out in the 6th attempting a bounce back deuce.  The look on Glenn as he and Wayne discuss their options during third stones tells it all.

Here is what they are facing:

Martin is Red

Howard brings their next rock behind the corner (see below).  Martin throws centre guards and Glenn peels with Wayne’s last shot and his skips first.  It felt like they could have perhaps played a hit off their own rock partially behind the corner and roll into the four foot and disrupt the pile.   Kevin realizes the possibility and guards it on his final stone. 
Martin is Red

Glenn is left with an attempt to raise the Martin shot onto the yellow in the eight foot, attempting to spin it in for two.  He instead takes one and the fans, if it were crowded, may have considered leaving to beat the traffic rush.

In the 7th end and John Morris makes a double peel on his final stone.  Howard, down 4-3 without hammer, is facing this before first shot:
 Martin is Red

Clearly set on trying to force Martin to a single, they elect to hit the back red stone and sit two.  They discuss that even if Kevin manages a double, he likely rolls out and they have a chance to come around and still force a single.  I didn’t agree with the “roll-out” double.  Appeared many ways Kevin would have a double to sit one and likely blank the end.  However, the numbers show that a force is only 2% better than a blank (19% if down two with hammer and 17% if one down without with 3 ends remaining).  My first impression was Glenn should have played a guard on their shot stone.  It could be the extreme curl made guards less effective and Howard’s team felt a steal was not likely.  Quickly looking at the numbers, if Glenn expects Martin to get a deuce 1/3 of the time he throws the guard, he needs to steal greater than 20% of the time to make it the correct call.  

Uncharacteristically, Kevin hits and rolls out, leaving Howard sitting one.  John attempts to have a brief chat with his skip, but it ends abruptly as Kevin slides away leaving his third in mid sentence, mouth still open.  This is what curling needs to increase its fan base, more coverage of players feuding.  Like this recent first end chat between Randy Ferbey and John Morris.

Martin draws for one and Howard is now down two with hammer and 3 ends to go.  The 8th looks like a possible blank until Kevin makes a great draw out to the wings, corner freezing a stone, and Glenn is forced to take one.  His chances go from 15% (blank) to 14% (force). 

In the 9th, Howard is able to put his rocks in good positions and Martin needs to throw big weight on his final stone to take one.  His shooter hits over 15/16ths of Howard’s rock in the top 4 and actually spins forward a half rock to beat out another Howard stone by a measure.

Now two up without hammer, Martin makes an interesting call on his final stone in the 10th.  Kevin’s squad has been able to clear the guards and Glenn is forced to draw around a single Martin stone in the top eight foot.

Kevin could attempt a 6 foot raise to remove the Howard stone and win the game immediately.  He instead chooses to play a freeze to the back stone.  He comes short and leaves Glenn a chance with a double to tie the game and send it to an extra end.  I don’t disagree with Kevin’s call. The large amount of curl should enable them to bury right to the back rock and essentially end the game, but Kevin Martin is known for laser precise hitting and given a chance to end it that way, I’m surprised he didn’t chose that option.  Ultimately Howard is unable to make his final shot and Martin wins the Canada Cup and first Canada Olympic Trials spot.  Something tells me Glenn will qualify soon enough and perhaps in another 2+ years we can watch these guys do this all over again.

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