Contenders, dark horse picks for 2019 Scotties Tournament of Hearts

Rachel Homan yells to her sweepers during the 2017 Scotties Tournament of Hearts in St. Catharines, Ont. (Anil Mungal)

Canada will crown it’s women’s curling champion at the Scotties Tournament of Hearts starting Friday night in Sydney, N.S.

All 13 provinces and territories are represented plus Northern Ontario, Team Canada (last year’s winner Team Jennifer Jones) and a wildcard team (TBD) to complete the 16-team field.

Teams are split into two pools for round-robin play with the top four from each side advancing to the championship round. After four games against the teams from the opposite pool, the top four overall in the championship round will advance to the Page playoffs. The winner will represent Canada at next month’s world women’s curling championship in Denmark.

Here are the teams to keep an eye on from the legit contenders to potential dark horses.

Go wild for the wildcard

Alright, let’s get this bad boy out of the way right off the bat: the wildcard game. Fighting for the 16th and final spot in Friday’s single-elimination game will be Manitoba’s Team Kerri Einarson against Alberta’s Team Casey Scheidegger as the top two teams who didn’t win their playdowns.

Einarson and her all-new squad featuring three former skips (Val Sweeting, Shannon Birchard, and Briane Meilleur) should hold the advantage based on merit alone sitting comfortably in second place on the Canadian Teams Ranking System (CTRS) list. They connected almost instantly winning four consecutive titles on the World Curling Tour with runner-up results at the Boost National, Canada Cup, and Canad Inns Women’s Classic. They also came in second place at the Manitoba Scotties to Team Tracy Fleury scoring a huge five points in the second end before seeing the lead slip away thanks to a furious rally from Fleury.

Scheidegger, No. 6 on the CTRS, is no underdog and a viable contender. Her team remained intact from last season although they’ve had an up-and-down year with a WCT title win at the HDF Insurance Shoot-Out and semifinal finish at the Canadian Beef Masters but also missed the playoffs at the Canada Cup and Alberta Scotties. They’ll have to do what Fleury did during the Manitoba Scotties final and play a fine touch game forcing Einarson into making risky hits.

Championship contenders

Any list of contenders for the Scotties Tournament of Hearts has to begin with Ontario’s Team Rachel Homan. The clear No. 1 CTRS team, with 100 points over second-place Einarson, Homan has won three consecutive Pinty’s Grand Slam of Curling titles (plus a runner-up finish prior to that trio) and only sustained one loss during their roll through the Ontario Scotties.

Homan won her third Scotties championship in 2017 and went undefeated through the world championship but did not return to defend the title last year with bigger fish to fry as her team prepared for the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics.

Having said that, Homan is still human and defending champions Team Jennifer Jones, in the Team Canada auto-berth spot, pose a serious threat, too. Jones saves her best for the big stage with a record-tying six Scotties Tournament of Hearts championships and captured the Canada Cup two months ago against the best in the nation although that victory is Jones’s only title on the season.

Alberta’s Team Chelsea Carey should also be in the playoff mix. The 2016 Canadian champion has a new lineup in front of her, however, the solid front-end pair of second Dana Ferguson and lead Rachel Brown finished runner-up at the Scotties Tournament of Hearts twice with Sweeting and also claimed three Pinty’s Grand Slam of Curling championships. Brown was out for the start of the season due to mat leave but hasn’t missed a beat.

Fleury reached the final four last year with her former Northern Ontario squad and the Sudbury skip has an even better lineup in front of her now. Third Selena Njegovan, second Liz Fyfe and lead Kristin MacCuish took home Scotties silver with Einarson a year ago and have gelled quite well with their new captain.

Also in the playoff hunt

Whoever emerges as Team Wildcard, whether it’s Einarson or Scheidegger, should be considered a playoff option. We’ll slot them on the outside looking in for now.

Northern Ontario’s Team Krista McCarville reached the medal round during their past two appearances at the Scotties Tournament of Hearts picking up silver in 2016 and a fourth-place finish in 2017. There is a slight roster change from those lineups with new alternate Jen Gates in for second Ashley Sippala (mat leave).

McCarville isn’t as active on tour as those above, which makes it hard to project her team finishing higher than those who compete regularly against the world’s best in the Pinty’s Grand Slam of Curling but it also means their No. 32 CTRS ranking is misleading.

Saskatchewan’s Team Robyn Silvernagle had a breakout season winning three WCT titles and received the sponsor’s exemption for the Meridian Canadian Open in their hometown of North Battleford. Silvernagle didn’t get stage fright and excelled reaching the quarterfinals. The key is veteran third Stefanie Lawton, a former skip who won the 2012 Players’ Championship and has made four prior appearances at the Scotties Tournament of Hearts.

Best of the rest

Sarah Wark is making her Scotties Tournament of Hearts debut skipping B.C. and could be the dark horse ranked 24th on the CTRS. Wark picked up two WCT titles in the fall but hasn’t faced a lot of competition outside her home province, so we’ll quickly see if that ranking is warranted or smoke and mirrors.

Nova Scotia’s Jill Brothers will play in her fourth Scotties Tournament of Hearts and finished in a three-way tie for fifth place, right outside on the doorstep of the playoffs, with a 6-5 record during her previous appearance in 2016. A lineup shuffle this season has seen the addition of third Erin Carmody, who earned a silver medal at the Scotties Tournament of Hearts in 2010 for P.E.I. with skip Kathy O’Rourke.

Team Kerry Galusha of the Northwest Territories put in the work this season to get better and picked up their first WCT title in Kemptville, Ont., and also earned quarterfinal results at stops in Toronto and Edmonton. They’re still a longshot to win but at the very least should improve upon their record from a year ago (1-6 in the round-robin plus a win over P.E.I. in the placement pool).

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