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Thursday, February 14, 2013

The Battle for Alberta (and a few skirmishes in other provinces)

In case you missed it, last weekend was stocked full of televised curling. Rogers SportsNet had cameras and crews across 4 provinces and did a great job of broadcasting several Mens Provincial page/semis and finals. I did have trouble setting my Tivo and PVRs based on the confusing guide.  The listings didn't seem to match the actual times I knew the games were taking place and why was the Ontario semi-final scheduled for 30 minutes from 7:30-8:00 AM?. Why were Koe and Martin playing the Alberta 'Womens" Finals?  I recorded the Dominion Tankard finals from Ontario only to find another recording of the Manitoba finals.  Sorry, but no CWM comments on that game, since I haven't been able to find a replay online.  And another beef with Rogers, either move your camera angle or stop putting the score across the bottom of the screen and having it cover up part of the rings.  I can't see where all the rocks are!

No slight to other provinces, but BC, Ontario and Manitoba turned out to be undercards to the Alberta Main Event.  The McEwen/Stoughton final never materialized as curling author Sean Grassie upset Jeff in the 1-2 game, only to fall short in the rematch the following day.  Purple Heart number 10 for Jeff Stoughton.  When I was growing up in Manitoba, 4 or 5 seemed like the most any skip might be able to reach (Burtnyk has 5, Ken Watson 4 and 4 others with 3).  

Let's take a look at some of those preliminary bouts:

Manitoba 1-2 Game: Jeff Stoughton vs Sean Grassie

Jeff is slightly off with his weight in the 5th and 6th ends and the game turns from one up without hammer to tied without.  The 7th end produces a sloppy single for Sean and Stoughton rebounds with a deuce in the 8th and you're still hopeful you can pull out that bet you made with the house, the garage and the trailer on Jeff.   In the 10th, Mark comes deep on his draw and Reid ticks the front on his freeze attempt.  After a discussion and a peel by Grassie, Jeff faces this on third Jon Meads last shot:

Stoughton is Yellow

After a time out, Stoughton calls for the guard which I agree is the correct call.  Unfortuantely Jon's rock comes well light.  Not sure if it picked or as announcer back-from-retirement Ray Turnbull mentions he "pulled the string", which as a curling phrase I've never understood nor found the historical reference.  Searching the web you find the reference to an off-speed pitch in baseball.  

A note about Sean Grassie, not only does he hold the Bronze from the 2009 World Mixed Doubles (that's right, Mixed Doubles goes back to the last decade), but it's the only medal Canada has from this event since its inception. It was also played in the land of the Hobbits.

Grassie actually catches a break when the double attempt on the yellow is inside and comes across the face, the top yellow stone actually jams the red in the four foot on the one in the twelve, and still manages to remove the back yellow.  Grassie lies two, spread across the house.  Jeff misses the double attempt on his first but manages to roll across the house, push the red stone back and remain shot.  Grassie chooses (wisely) to tap freeze on the Stoughton shot, to sit two.  Jeff now has to try and freeze on the back red, hoping to be tucked behind, and he makes a great shot.  Unfortunately for Jeff, the rocks are aligned so that Sean can hit and roll off his own stone, which will then hit another stone and also roll in for the winning point.  Not an easy shot but Sean has no trouble and completes the upset.  A game that was uneven most of the time, but an earned victory.

Manitoba Semi-Final: Stoughton vs McEwen

I will not discuss this any further than to repeat what Mike said at one point of the game, "I might as well be sitting on the bench".  After demolishing Fowler in the 3-4, Mike comes up with a poor game and Team Stoughton is sharper than the night before.  The final score was 5-3 but it never really felt that close.

Manitoba Final: Grassie vs Stoughton

First end jitters and Sean throws his draw through the rings.  All he needed was a bite of the eight or at least half of the twelve foot to hold Stoughton to one.  Instead, a steal of two and the loss of hammer from the 1-2 game is erased. Second end is another no-guard-in-site steal after another missed draw by Sean (though this one was much closer).  3 zip for Jeff.  Game over?  In the 3rd, draw weight was a mystery as Jeff was heavy, Sean was light, Jeff was heavy and a bounceback deuce for Grassie.

Meanwhile, 24 year old Kody Janzen is not only a steller young player, he sports a throwback lid that could have him playing in the 50s with a heavily patched sweater and he wouldn't be out of place.

One of these four is not like the others.  Can you spot the difference?
Or maybe Kody could have played with Ray back in '58.

Score at 5-3 and Jeff avoids a deuce with a nice double take-out on his last shot.  Blank, and they head to the eight end.

Grassie gets in a heap of trouble in the 4th end.  Jon Mead misses a run back and instead removes his own but a gift from Grassie's third Corey Chambers when he misses the double, jams on his own rock and allows Stoughton to draw to sit three.   Sean, facing 3 on his last, makes a great hit and roll to sit in front of shot stone at the back eight.  Jeff's hit appears to pick and instead of a deuce he is held to one.

Watching Jon Mead's second shot in the 9th, I hear Richard Hart commentating on the Alberta final (but video is still Manitoba).  Is this Shaw broadcasting or SportsNet?  Sean leaves his last guard out to the side to prevent Jeff from making a thin hit for one. Clearly a mistake as it appeared he could have guarded that and the double for two that Jeff was able to make for a 3 up lead heading to the last.   

BC Final - I admit it, I didn't watch this.  I was much too spent after a day of curling and the shear brilliance of the Alberta Final.  Perhaps I'll find some time in the coming days or weeks, but for those who need a recap...Bilesky 7, Pierce 4.

Alberta Final - Kevin Martin vs Kevin Koe
We can only hope that we get 1 or 2 games in the Brier that can match this one for shotmaking and for tension.

First End I don't completely agree with Martin's first call.  Lead for Koe, Nolan Thiessen, puts his first rock just biting top eight foot.   Martin choses to hit it, playing the end out as a blank, unless a mistake by Koe allows him to put up a corner guard (and even then he may not).  Back to the discussion of having hammer in the even ends.  I need to get the numbers from Gerry at CurlingZone but I'd like to know in a 10 end game how often a team that has hammer in the 2nd, ends up with hammer in the 8th end.   

My reason for throwing a corner has less to do with "even ends" and more to do with the placement of Nolan's rock.  If Martin puts up a corner, Koe has to decided if he wants to guard a rock biting the eight foot or if he wants to play a tap back.  If he throws a guard, Martin can come around both stones and put the pressure on.  If he throws a tap back, Martin can play a double or hit and roll and will have a chance to use the corner guard.  Having said all that, it's the first end and this call isn't going to win or lose the game.  I think of it as an opportunity missed.

In the Fifth End, Koe has a hit and roll opportunity on his first but isn't able to move the Martin stone kissing his own off the button.  Martin throws a guard and Koe could have chose a raise onto his red stone but the risk of a steal (of at least one, possible two) existed and a deuce seemed unlikely.  Koe instead decides to throw his last away.  

Koe is Red and wisely choses not to play this shot.

Score is tied 2-2 at the break and Team Koe is at 92% and Team Martin at 86% (including a full miss by John Morris).

Rogers shows a stat of Koe and Martin's records in 2012/13 Season.  The stat of 1-PT (point) games is missleading to me.  Koe is 16-7 and Martin is 6-7.  The sample size in a single season is small and many times a close game ends with a score of more than 1 point difference, and other times a 1-point game is not as close as it appears.  I'd like to see record in games that are tied or one down with hammer and 3 ends remain (after the 7th end  in a 10 end game and 5th end in an 8 end game).  This is the point at which teams are entering the "End Game". 

Seventh end.  After Pat Simmons is unable to make a roll on his hit, Martin sits second and has an open hit to lie two.  John Morris hits and rolls in slightly on the shot stone, sitting just below the button.  Kevin Koe makes a critical shot to freeze tap on that stone, leaving Martin a difficult shot and he is unable to get shot.  The house now looks like this:

Koe is Red

Koe cannot be liking the set-up.  Martin sits 2,3 and 4 and Koe's shot stone has no catcher behind it.  There is considerable discussion on what to call and what leave is the most difficult shot for Kevin Martin.
They look at drawing in on top of Martin's rock top button.  A possible hit and roll off the 4th shot in the top eight foot.  Eventually they settle on guarding the inturn, taking away the raise on the yellow onto the red for two or possibly more.  

Martin is left with two likely options: straight back raise on the red stone just out of the rings (black line) or his eventual choice, the angle raise on the yellow corner guard (green line).  

It appeared this was the more difficult shot to make but it had more potential outcomes that would generate points.  If Kevin is able to raise the stone and hit his rock in the top four foot, it's very likely he will move the back red stone.  His room for error on the angle is small but the room for error if he is able to raise the rock onto the target stone is greater.  The straight back raise on the red was clearly an easier shot to make, but there is less room for error.  Running the red also brings in a slight possibility of a steal of two, though it would have to be a very poorly thrown shot and I expect it wasn't something Martin was concerned about.  If I'm Kevin Koe, I prefer Martin throwing this shot over the straight back, but either way I'm holding my breath as I know this game could be over.  

Martin misses the angle raise and Koe steals one and goes up 3-2 heading into the 7th end.  In the 7th, Koe puts up a tight centre guard on his first stone. He is expecting Martin will likely hit his open shot in the rings if he draws into the four foot.

Martin third John Morris rolls out on both his hit attempts and Koe has an opportunity to draw around a single corner guard on his first rock.  He could instead choose to play to the open side, by coming around the corner he is bringing a possible deuce into play in an attempt to force Martin to one.  His rock overcurls slightly and comes a ittle deep, allowing Martin to corner feeze for shot stone.  Koe is forced to attempt a difficult draw around these two rocks:

Koe is Red

Koe rubs the yellow stone and rolls into the open, biting the four foot, but he is fortunate to push the Martin stone a fraction of an inch and into 3rd shot.  One of Kevin's players appears to utter a word that in Saskatchewan, may have had him removed from the game.   Kevin attempts a big weight hit to try and roll his shooter into the two stones and maybe score two, but he ultimately settles for a single point.

Eighth end, tie game, and Koe has hammer.  Didn't Martin blank the first so he wouldn't be in this situation?

On discussing Marc Kennedy's second shot with his skip, we get to hear John Morris say "tickle it" on TV.  I've always wondered how folks unfamiliar with this game react to the array of words used in Curling. It is a sport that has its own language and does at times make the game more complex than it really is.  Imagine yourself coming to Canada from a tropical island, never having seen snow much less curling. Now try to determine what each of these words mean: biter, keen, pebble, hack, pin, lid, draw, four/eight/twelve (as it refers to ring sizes), IE. "he had to draw the four to win", hammer, freeze, hog, hurry! (aren't you going as fast as you can?), shot, peel, steal, and weight.  I'm sure you can think of many others.

On Koe's first he is drawing around a long centre guard and comes up a fraction light, leaving Martin first and third.  Koe's is buried in the top eight foot however and Martin's shot stone is wide open in the back eight foot.  He attempts to come around the Koe rock into the four foot.  Martin is unable to bury his rock and Koe has a difficult but make-able double to take two points.  It's wide all the way and, worse than even being held to one, Koe gives up a steal (on a measurement) and Martin goes up 5-4.  That shot resulted in the difference of Koe's chances dropping from 85% (with a deuce) or 63% (with a single) to 37%. Koe had curled 98% at that point, and with one miss shifted the advantage and possibly the outcome to Martin.

Ninth end, Morris hollers down before a Kennedy stone and this time calls Martin "Skippy".  By combining "skippy" and "tickle it" in the same sentence, John may be on his way to writing a best selling childrens' book to go along with his curlers workout manual.

After a blank in nine, Koe needs a deuce in the 10th end for the win.  Similar to the first Sluchinski game, he's running short of time and needs to make decisions quicker than they may have wanted.  Third for Koe, Pat Simmons, final shot and they are facing this:

Koe is Red

Commentator Richard Hart prefers the soft hit on the two reds (green line above) rather than the peel of the centre guard, Koe's eventual call.  I agree with Richard that putting 4 red against a single yellow is a preferred position, but they would need to closely examine how the rocks would be left in order to best avoid a dangerous shot by Martin. Facing a time crunch the peel is the simpler decision to make.  It would have been better if they had made that decision sooner and saved the time out for later.

Martin now has to make a decision of where to put his first rock.  He decides against the guard (recognizing if Koe makes the shot Richard described above he may have no shot on his last).  He decides to try a chip his yellow on the top eight foot over with draw weight.  John warns against the shooter going too far and leaving a hit and roll for Koe but Martin suggests he won't play that.  I have no idea why he thinks that, suspect he may have been in denile.  

Martin ends up missing the called shot and instead draws to the back of the four foot, frozen on their own, turning the previous angle raise hit into an angle tap.  Martin now calls time out before his final stone:

They decided to play the same shot as his first, attempting to tap the yellow to shot stone.  He's a little light and leaves this:

Koe decides to play a thin double and hope to spill the shooter in for second shot.  If they had more time to examine (Koe throws his last with 10 seconds on the clock), they may have chosen to play less weight or picked a different spot to hit.  They were actually calling sweeping when they needed the rock to curl a little more.  If the shot was even there (and it may not have been because of the top red) it's likely made once in 20 tries.

Martin lead Ben Hebert makes his ticks in the extra end and Kevin eventually hits an open Koe stone for the win. Their celebration isn't quite an Olympic Gold medal, but there are wide smiles, big hugs and despite having been here many times before, a genuine sense of joy.  This team has not often been near its peak since 2010 and this is a game they very easily could have lost.  This game made me consider that, as much as this Brier field looks great and it will be one to savour, those Trials in Winnipeg next year might just rival anything we've seen in curling.  Four teams at their peak with a 5th (McEwen) an arguable equal.  The last Trials was clearly Martin and Howard at their best, Stoughton a step behind, a part-time Middaugh squad, a declining Ferbey rink and a group of teams still improving.

Scotties note:
I was hoping for better odds on Homan (3 to 1) but I still dropped a little on her squad to win it all.  I expect she's closer to 30% rather than 25% so it's a small advantage.  

Until next time...

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