REGINA — Brad Gushue is a win away from repeating as Canadian men’s curling champion.
Gushue advanced to Sunday’s final by beating Ontario’s John Epping 6-2 in Saturday’s playoff game between the top two seeds.
Gushue, third Mark Nichols, second Brett Gallant and lead Geoff Walker won the Tim Hortons Brier last year in Gushue’s hometown of St. John’s, N.L.
It was Gushue’s first Canadian title after 13 tries.
"I can’t emphasize enough how much different this feels from last year and how free we are playing," Gushue said. "Kind of freewheeling it right now."
The foursome would be the first back-to-back Brier winners since Alberta’s Kevin Martin in 2008 and 2009 with a victory Sunday.
Gushue went 10-1 to earn the top playoff seeding ahead of Epping at 9-2. Ontario must beat Alberta’s Brendan Bottcher in Sunday’s semifinal to earn a rematch with Gushue.
Changes in the format to include 16 teams meant eliminating the bronze-medal game Sunday to accommodate the semifinal starting late morning local time.
So Alberta or Ontario will need a pair of wins Sunday to take the title.
"I hope they kick the crap out of each other really," Gushue said. "Wear each other down as much as possible."
Gushue made the most of having hammer to start Saturday’s game. He was in control throughout with deuces in the second and sixth ends and a steal of one in the fourth.
The skip was 100 per cent in shooting accuracy, although Gushue thought that was generous. His team was rated 91 per cent to Ontario’s 83.
"Brad looked really sharp tonight. He really threw the rock well," Epping said. "Geoff set up the ends beautifully and got great rock position early.
"It was frustrating (for us) to come out and play like that. We’ll learn from that and will hopefully get another shot at Brad."
The earlier playoff game between Alberta and Northern Ontario’s Brad Jacobs had more suspense. Bottcher scored two in the 10th and stole a point in an extra end for a 6-5 win.
Bottcher operates without a safety net. He believes that is the secret to his team’s success.
Each team usually has an alternate player and a coach — or at least one person doing double duty — sitting on chairs at the end of the ice sheet during games.
Alberta’s chairs have been empty in Regina. Bottcher, third Darren Moulding, second Brad Thiessen and lead Karrick Martin prefer to go it alone.
"We just felt like this year we needed to own it, the four of us, and see where that could take us," Bottcher said.
Trailing 5-3 coming home with hammer against Jacobs, Bottcher made a tricky double takeout to score two.
Instead of hitting and giving Jacobs a makeable draw for the win in the extra end, Bottcher tucked a draw behind cover on the back edge of the button.
Jacobs didn’t make enough contact with that stone and gave up the steal of one.
"I didn’t think he was making that shot," Jacobs said of Bottcher’s draw. "That was a ridiculously tough shot, and he made it look easy."
Jacobs won Canadian and world titles in 2013 and Olympic gold the following year. Bottcher’s current team went 3-8 in their Brier debut last year in St. John’s.
But Alberta won its second game in as many days against a tournament heavyweight having beaten Northern Ontario 9-3 the previous day.
"To be the underdogs, no one expects … there wouldn’t have been a whole lot of teams that would have placed us in the final three," Bottcher said.
"I think we’ll be underdogs against the last two and I like our chances still."
Kevin Martin, father of lead Karrick and skip of the team that won Olympic gold in 2010, coached the team last year in St. John’s where the team also had an alternate player.
Bottcher, a 26-year-old chemical engineer, wanted to put more responsibility in fewer hands this season.
"We’re a pretty tight-knit group," he explained. "There’s a lot of teams here at the Brier that all have their own rooms, they have their coach, their alternate, they come play their games and they all go their own way and that’s not really our team.
"We’re together a lot and we found that when the onus is on us to come here and scout rocks and to do evening practices together, we’re just a lot better unit."
Going without a fifth player means no substitute in the event of illness or injury. Northern Ontario lead Ryan Harnden was back in their lineup Saturday after missing two games Friday with the flu.
"It was a little bit of a risk, but it was a risk we were willing to take," Moulding said. "We took the gamble we would all be healthy and we have been."