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Monday, February 15, 2016

McEwen Removes an Asterisk

Both teams already knew their travel plans for early March before the first rock, but the Manitoba Provincial men's final still had all the tension you'd expect for McEwen's first Purple Heart. Mike and his squad didn't want to remove one asterisk: Best team to not have reached the Brier, only to have another added: Brier appearance because winning team chose to decline invitation and play in World juniors.

Both rinks played like winning the Manitoba Buffalo was as important as winning any Grand Slam or Canadian Junior title. Matt, son of Dean and grandson of Jim surely understood the historic significance, even if an actual trip to the Brier would (likely) come in a future year. Some discussion before the event on whether Dunstone should be allowed to participate in the provincials. Clearly they were playing looser than their competition, and if they had won could have tarnished the legacy of the Brier bound team. But the opportunity for them to gain experience and exposure, building toward mens, is more valuable to the game than it is a detriment to their opponents. One benefit of lighter zone playdowns across the country, it gives more opportunities for up-and-coming teams. Look for my upcoming article in the Brier edition of The Curling News for more on this topic.

Unfortunately, this entire curling season may get an asterisk before too long. The directional sweeping was in clear form throughout mens playdowns and demonstrated that the standard hair broom of 40 years ago could be more of a problem than any synthetic device. Apparently the hard wooden top combined with thinner hair brushes allows for added pressure and higher effect from the directional micro-scratching, not unlike the insert that has been outlawed in the IcePad. A meeting of the World Curling Federation was held with suppliers in Toronto in early February with speculation the hair broom will be the next to be removed from competition. The swingy ice in the Alberta provincials, combined with hair brooms and single snowplow sweeping technique, led to several hits on rocks that were over buried! Teams (Charley Thomas in particular) were sometimes throwing softer weight hits on runbacks, no doubt in order to take advantage of directional sweeping and increase the chance at a nose hit, keeping the promoted stone in the rings.

I don't want to belabour the broom issue further, but if rules and equipment changes come into effect next year (and based on my observation, I hope they are), this season will sit in history as a strange outlier. A year when curlers managed to take devices which were decades old and use them differently to create perhaps the greatest controversy the sport has ever seen. It still shocks me that through all of the testing and study of brushing leading to the Vancouver Olympics and the countless games in years past with 2 sweepers on the same side or one sweeper when a player was absent, and we still never figured this out. Then again, it took NBA coaches and GMs over 30 years to realize that 3 points is better than 2. If the great Larry Bird shot threes like Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson, his stats could have been off the charts and his Celtics may have won more than 3 Championships.

A few observations from the weekend:

SportsNet is getting even better at their coverage and Jeff Stoughton did a fine job during Manitoba provincials. But why the %^^& does SportsNet have to jump around from game to game on one channel and screw up my PVR? I recognize some people don't have all the East, West and Pacific channels, but I'd expect those fans would prefer to see an entire game than just the first 4 ends, even if it meant missing another contest.

Manitoba 1 vs 1 Game: Mike McEwen vs Reid Carruthers 
Carruthers is down 2 (3-1) with last rock in the 6th end and chooses a difficult double (green line) rather than draw for a single (blue line).

McEwen is Red
Win Expectancy (WE) if Reid draws for a single is 20%, and he likely expects it's even lower given the level of competition. A deuce would increase WE to 37%. There's some chance he could remove both stones and his shooter spins out, leaving a single anyway. The rocks appeared to be possibly too flat for the portion of target he could see, but at this point the risk is likely worth the reward. Carruthers needs to make a deuce about 1/3 of the time and get held to one another 20%, for this to be the correct call. Just not sure the shot was there. Reid rubbed on his own stone, gave up a steal of 2, and now we will never know.

Alberta Semifinal: Kevin Koe vs Brendan Bottcher
In the 4th end, Koe is down 1 and has a possible draw for 1 (blue line) but chooses instead the slash double for 3 (green line) with the last rock of the end. He makes it and goes up 4 to 2.
Koe is Red
Let's look at this from a Risk Factor. Some slight chance Koe only gets one or two (if the yellow in the back eight doesn't leave the rings), but let's assume he either makes and gets 3 (WE=75%) or hits guard/too thin and gives up a steal of 2 (WE=13%) and sometimes jams for a steal of 1 (WE=25%). A draw for 1 gives WE=38%. His Risk factor with a make = .75 - .38 = +.37 and a miss could be -.12 or -.26. I don't mind the call in a vacuum and I expect Koe believes his most likely miss is a jam leaving him only 2 down with 6 ends remaining. But given his team's level related to Bottcher, it's not a shot he needs to take in this situation. You could argue that tied without hammer and 6 ends remaining, Koe is much higher that 38% to win the game.

Same game. Showing the argument against hair brooms. Koe third Marc Kennedy is able to remove a rock over buried and with a catcher behind, and sit to lie 3, despite a guard that is only 8-9 feet out of the rings:

Koe is Red
Alberta Final: Kevin Koe vs Charley Thomas
More broom behaviour. Rather than draw for 1, Thomas attempts to hit a completely buried rock on the nose in order to get two. It jams and Koe steals one. Broadcaster Kevin Martin explains this is a shot no one would likely have attempted even a year ago.

In the 5th end, a hog line violation leaves Thomas with no free corner guard. After a few peeled guards, he attempts to aggressively freeze during the end rather than clear the Koe stones (with a straight forward double) and get a blank. Kevin Martin repeats his TM mantra about keeping hammer in even ends. I'm not one to often argue with the Old Bear but his continued stress on even ends does not correlate to the actual statistics in Win Expectancy. Having said that....I don't agree with the decision because the result is still likely a blank. These teams are just too skilled at blasting rocks and combined with the action in the house a perfect freeze usually gets removed from play. The strange decision is on third Nate Connolly's last shot, Charley calls for a come around on a single Koe stone in the top eight foot, rather than an open hit to lead to a likely blank (WE=23%). At this stage, the likelyhood of scoring a deuce (WE=39%) is very small and the risk of being forced (WE=20%) is too great to bother taking the risk at this stage, whether it's heading into an even end or otherwise. It's not as poor a decision as it looks, with a force only surrendering 3% with potential gain of 16% WE, but the chances of a deuce here seem highly unlikely, less than 5% perhaps. Charley may have felt that given the competition, he needed to press every chance possible, even if it was a low percentage play.

Until next time...