Eight Ends: McEwen, Koe charge out of the gate at Brier

Manitoba skip Mike McEwen at the 2017 Tim Hortons Brier in St. John's, N.L. (Anil Mungal)

The Tim Hortons Brier is now in full swing with Manitoba’s Mike McEwen and Team Canada’s Kevin Koe jumping to the top of the leaderboard with 3-0 starts in St. John’s, N.L.

McEwen is showing no signs of a “sophomore slump” in his second appearance at the Canadian men’s curling championship. The Winnipeg native doubled up on Brad Gushue 8-4 Sunday thanks to a late three-ender in the eighth that quieted the crowd and sunk the hometown hero’s chances of making a comeback.

For Koe, the defending champ has had to battle to get to that 3-0 record. Case in point, his Sunday night game against Glenn Howard of Ontario. Howard was ahead by one and looked to put the hurt on in the fourth end with a chance to score three, four or even five points and take a commanding lead. However, Koe tucked his last in perfectly and Howard over-curled his final stone of the end as his runback attempt was unable to bump out the counter and resulted in a steal that tied it 2-2. That huge swing kept Koe in it and a deuce in the 10th gave him the 5-4 victory.

Whether Koe is feeling the heat with the Maple Leaf on his back or not, teams will be targeting him simply based on pro wrestler Ric Flair’s old saying, “To be the man, you have to beat the man.”

Koe and McEwen haven’t had the success they would have liked on the Pinty’s Grand Slam of Curling series this season — and both missed the playoffs at the Canada Cup — however, if their plans all along were to peak just in time for the Tim Hortons Brier, well then, it seems to be working.

1st End: Gushue right behind the leaders at 2-1

As expected, the hometown crowd has thrown their full support behind Gushue as the 14-time provincial winner looks to finally win his first Brier title.

A spirited 8-6 win over Alberta’s Brendan Bottcher kicked things off on a positive note in Saturday’s opening main draw with the skip throwing 100 percent. Gushue bounced back from the McEwen loss with a 6-4 Sunday night over New Brunswick’s Mike Kennedy.

As Gushue told us last week, one of the good things about the Brier’s long round-robin process is you can afford a loss and it’s not going to knock you out of the running.

Gushue and teammate Mark Nichols weren’t overthinking about the Brier too much leading up to the event as they kept themselves busy by preparing to open an Orangetheory Fitness location in St. John’s.

2nd End: Murphy’s law

All things considered, Nova Scotia’s Jamie Murphy is really out to a 6-1 start at the Brier.

Murphy had to make it through the pre-qualifier round this season and went 4-0 to reach the main draw. Additional victories over Howard and Bottcher pushed his winning streak to six until a 10-6 loss to Quebec’s Jean-Michel Menard on Sunday night cooled things down.

Perhaps an advantage to playing out of the pre-qualifier is knowing the ice and the rocks on multiple sheets. Your early opponents are still figuring things out while you’re already game-ready. We saw the same during the Scotties Tournament of Hearts with NWT’s Kerry Galusha getting out of the pre-qualifier and continuing that success to a 3-1 start in the main draw. That advantage will not last long though and Murphy will have to stay sharp as the week wears on.

3rd End: Casey taking charge with Saskatchewan

Saskatchewan is also hanging tough thanks to import skip Adam Casey from P.E.I.

Casey is making his sixth consecutive Brier appearance with his third different province (his first three trips to men’s national came with Team Gushue).

The rest of his squad from The Rink Formerly Known as Team Meachem are Brier rookies, so it certainly helps having someone experienced like Casey calling the shots.

A loss to Quebec Monday afternoon evened Saskatchewan’s record to 2-2 and they’ll have to regroup quickly as Casey takes on former skip Gushue in the evening.

4th End: Bottcher behind the 8-ball

We’ve mentioned who has started strong out of the gate, so now let’s flip the table and see who has stumbled.

John Morris and Team B.C. are off to a less-than-ideal 1-2 start opening with losses to Northern Ontario’s Brad Jacobs and Ontario before picking up an 8-3 win over New Brunswick on Sunday. Another win will bring them level, but they’ll have to turn it up in order to get out of the usual log jam that clogs up the middle of the standings.

Brier rookies Bottcher and Team Alberta are down at the bottom at 0-3 with losses to Gushue, Casey and Murphy. They’ll have to switch into must-win mode — and fast — or risk falling out of contention early.

5th End: Fresh faces for Norway at worlds

Thomas Ulsrud’s team will not compete at the world men’s curling championship next month in Edmonton. Ulsrud, who has represented Norway 12 times at the worlds, fell to Steffen Walstad in the national championship.

Walstad, No. 17 on the World Curling Tour’s year-to-date rankings, has had a breakout performance on tour this year winning the German Masters and adding runner-up finishes at the Mercure Perth Masters and Original 16 WCT Bonspiel. He also earned a bronze medal for Norway at the Winter Universiade.

While Team Ulsrud (and their funny pants) will be missed, it’ll be intriguing to see how Walstad’s fresh team stacks up on the world stage.

6th End: Lawes hits the road for Toronto tour

Team Jones third Kaitlyn Lawes is in Toronto visiting various curling clubs to promote the WestJet Players’ Championship running April 11-16 at Ryerson’s Mattamy Athletic Centre.

The 2014 Olympic gold medallist will hit two clubs Monday appearing at Dixie CC from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. and Oakville CC from 7:30 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. Lawes wraps up her Toronto tour at the Cricket Club Tuesday night from 7:30 p.m. to 9:30 p.m.

7th End: One week to the Princess Auto Elite 10

The draw schedule is now out for next week’s Princess Auto Elite 10 in Port Hawkesbury, N.S.

Among the entries is a special Elite 10 Select team featuring a fearsome foursome of curling legends: Jeff Stoughton, David Nedohin, Jamie Korab and Nolan Thiessen. Combined they’ve won 11 Grand Slams, 10 Briers, six world championships and one Olympic gold medal.

Defending champ Gushue kicks things off next Thursday, March 17, at noon AT (watch on Sportsnet) in a rematch of last year’s final against Winnipeg’s Reid Carruthers. The Elite 10 Select begin play in Draw 2 against Saskatoon’s Steve Laycock at 4 p.m. AT.

Click here to see the full draw schedule.

That wraps up this week’s news, let’s “shake hands” and get back to the Tim Hortons Brier action.

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