Gushue, Einarson off to solid starts at GSOC Tour Challenge

Brad Gushue shoots a stone during the fifth round-robin draw of the Tour Challenge on Nov. 7, 2018, in Thunder Bay, Ont. (Anil Mungal)

THUNDER BAY, Ont. — Brad Gushue took the whole Pinty’s Grand Slam of Curling name quite literally against John Epping at the Tour Challenge.

The defending champ from St. John’s, N.L., scored two sets of four-enders during his crew’s 10-8 victory against Epping’s Toronto team Wednesday night at the sold-out Tournament Centre.

Gushue improved to a 2-0 round-robin record while Epping is now even at 1-1 with a pair of games each remaining in pool play.

“The two draws that we’ve played there’s been a full house and it’s always nice to play in front of a full house,” Gushue said. “They’ve been cheering, (they’re) knowledgeable and it is a lot of fun. They’re a great crowd.”

Team Gushue got out of the gate to start the 2018-19 season a bit later than most but showed no signs of rust winning the club’s 11th title in the series at the GSOC’s season-opening Princess Auto Elite 10. Gushue is in the midst of a busy stretch though from playing in the China Open a few weeks ago and headed straight from there to Truro, N.S., for the Canadian Beef Masters, where his team was eliminated in the quarterfinals. Now with a week’s rest, they’re feeling fresh for their Tour Challenge title defence.

“We started late but we have a tough five or six-week stretch where we play China, Truro, a week off and then we play here and Halifax,” Gushue said. “Four out of five weeks for us is a lot.

“It’s going to be tough but certainly, we feel good this week and the week off last week was very nice. If we do get any fatigue it’s probably going to be next week. The draw is one game a day, so there’s no excuse. We’ll be rested, we’ll be ready to go. I think we’re all feeling a whole lot better than what we were in Truro.”

Epping, winner of the Canadian Beef Masters, was actually the instigator breaking up a 1-1 tie in the third end with a four-ball of his own. Gushue replied right back though capitalizing on an Epping misfire to get his first four-count in the fourth.

The cat-and-mouse chase continued with Epping going up two with a deuce in five before Gushue grabbed his second four-score in six. Epping was limited to a single in the seventh and was unable to snatch and grab a steal in the eighth as Gushue didn’t even need to throw his last.

“I haven’t played a whole lot of games like that in the last, I’d say, 10 years of my career,” Gushue said. “We don’t score many fours let alone two in a game and we also don’t give up many fours.

“It was a different game but we made some good shots and obviously missed a couple there when we gave up four. Very proud of how the guys hung in there and made some shots. We were fortunate to get those fours but we certainly had twos and threes set up and building in those ends. We got a timely miss from John and his team and they turned into fours.”

Tournament Centre holds special memories on both sides as Team Epping’s second Brent Laing and lead Craig Savill won the 1998 world junior curling championship in this very rink with Gushue serving as their alternate on the John Morris skipped squad.

“I still remember the building actually and it’s nice to be back,” Gushue said.

Epping has 12-time GSOC title winner Marc Kennedy, who stepped back from competitive curling after last season, helping out this week keeping his eyes on the ice and rocks across the sheets.

“He’s just having a look and even though we just won a Slam, it’s always important to keep working,” Epping said. “An extra set of eyes and his eyes aren’t going to hurt our team to have a look this week. We’re really happy that he’s been able to watch a couple of games today.”

Elsewhere in the fifth draw, it was a good day at the office for Kerri Einarson. Her squad from Gimli, Man., made it a two-win Wednesday earning their second victory on the night defeating Edmonton’s Team Chelsea Carey 7-3.

Team Einarson, who fell in a tiebreaker at the Canadian Beef Masters, also beat Team Cory Christensen of the United States 5-3 during the morning draw.

“It felt really good,” Einarson said. “We came out with two really solid games today and that’s something that we wanted to improve on from our last spiel. We came out and played really well and we were sharp.”

Einarson, winner of the Tier 2 title last season with her old lineup, got off on the right foot scoring three in the first. Carey closed the gap with a single in the second followed by a steal in the third to make it 3-2.

A deuce in the fourth reestablished the three-point gap for Einarson and back-to-back single steals in five and six added some insurance. The reigning Meridian Canadian Open champion Carey (1-1) could add only one point in seven and shook hands.

“It was a great battle,” Einarson said. “We just capitalized on every single opportunity that we had, really kept the pressure on them and made some big ones when we needed. When we got that three in the first end, that was pretty big.”

The all-new team of Einarson and former skips Val Sweeting (third), Shannon Birchard (second) and Briane Meilleur (lead) have made a splash on tour this season winning four titles already.

Team Silvana Tirinzoni of Switzerland snapped a six-game losing skid in the series downing Winnipeg’s Team Alli Flaxey 7-2. Both teams are now level at 1-1 records.

Regina’s Team Matt Dunstone scored two in the seventh and stole one in the eighth to edge Sweden’s Team Niklas Edin 5-4. Dunstone drew to a 1-1 record while Edin, the reigning world champion, slipped to 0-2 and is already in must-win territory to stave off elimination.

Edmonton’s Team Brendan Bottcher also picked up a 5-4 victory defeating Team Glenn Howard of Penetanguishene, Ont. Both teams hold identical 1-1 records.

The Tour Challenge is the third event of the Pinty’s Grand Slam of Curling season and features the largest field in the series with 60 teams split into two tiers of action. Tier 1 includes 15 of the top men’s teams and 15 of the top women’s teams from around the world. Both Tier 2 divisions are composed of the next 10 teams ranked on the World Curling Tour’s Order of Merit plus five teams from within the event’s region.

Round-robin play runs through to Friday night with the top eight teams overall in each division qualifying for Saturday’s quarterfinals. The semifinals are set for Saturday evening with all finals scheduled for Sunday.

TIER 2 RESULTS: Toronto’s Team Charley Thomas moved up to a 2-0 record with a 5-4 win over Scotland’s Team Glen Muirhead (1-1). Team Scott McDonald of Kingston, Ont., also grabbed a share of the top spot on the leaderboard with a 9-3 victory against Winnipeg’s Team William Lyburn (1-1). McDonald took two in the seventh to shatter a 3-3 tie and stole four in the ninth for the lopsided linescore.

Japan’s Team Sayaka Yoshimura climbed to 2-0 on the women’s side slipping past Team Susan Froud (1-1) of Waterloo, Ont., 6-4. Edmonton’s Team Kelsey Rocque (1-1) slid into the win column downing Team Hailey Beaudry (0-2) of Thunder Bay, Ont., 7-2. Toronto’s Team Hollie Duncan got back on track to beat Team Jenna Enge of Thunder Bay, Ont., 7-5. Enge (0-2) scored four in the second to lead 4-1 but Duncan (1-0) took control with a point in three, back-to-back single steals in four and five and two more in six.

NOTES: Winners of the Tour Challenge Tier 1 earn $25,000 of the $200,000 total purse plus berths to the season-ending Humpty’s Champions Cup event. … Points are also up for grabs in the Tier 1 division towards the Pinty’s Cup, which is awarded to season champions following the conclusion of the Players’ Championship in April. … Tier 2 winners earn the opportunity to move up the ranks receiving invitations to the 2019 Meridian Canadian Open in North Battleford, Sask.

UP NEXT: The Tour Challenge resumes Thursday at 8 a.m. ET at Thunder Bay Tournament Centre. Broadcast coverage begins at 11:30 a.m. ET on Sportsnet and online at Sportsnet NOW (Canada) and Yare (international).

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