WINNIPEG — Mike McEwen is one victory away from a lucky seventh Pinty’s Grand Slam of Curling title and his hometown to boot.
McEwen’s electric in-off in the seventh end that sent the crowd into a frenzy was the difference maker in his 1-up victory (4-3) over Glenn Howard of Tiny, Ont., during Saturday’s Princess Auto Elite 10 semifinals at St. James Civic Centre.
The team of McEwen, third B.J. Neufeld, second Matt Wozniak and lead Denni Neufeld announced at the start of the week they will be parting ways after the season and the first stop on their “farewell tour” just happens to be in their backyard.
“I think it’s important for all of us to finish the year strong,” McEwen said. “In our conversations, we said we want to be professional and really put a good ending to this story. Regardless of what happens in tomorrow’s final, I think we’ve accomplished that for sure this week.
“We’ve got a ton of fan support and we’re entertaining them like heck so, mission accomplished this week and that’s what we really want to do with the Players’ Championship and the Champions Cup [next month]. We just want to put our best version of ourselves out there.”
With the game all square in seven, McEwen went practically off the wall to bounce in and eliminate Howard’s shot rock that had his teammates jumping for joy.
“Given the circumstances of the game, that was probably a make-or-break moment,” McEwen said. “If we don’t make it, the best we can do is force it to a draw to the button and Glenn is obviously one of the very best with touch and feels. Just so glad we called it right because those are easy to muck up on the sweep calls. Amazing, just pure adrenaline making something like that in a building that’s full and behind you.”
Howard, who has won 14 Grand Slam titles as a skip, had to go hard in the eighth to try and force a shootout but couldn’t pull it off. McEwen praised his opponent who was sharp in vintage form going the distance.
“Of all people to turn back the clock, I’m not surprised it’s him,” McEwen said. “Maybe this type of format is just perfect for him. He loves aggression, he’s got really good feel games, so I’m not surprised he was very difficult to beat.”
It’s going to be a heavyweight tilt for the title with McEwen meeting back-to-back Brier winner Brad Gushue of St. John’s, N.L. Gushue clipped Calgary’s Kevin Koe in a battle of Team Canada squads as the reigning world champ ousted the Olympic rep 1-up (2-1).
“I think this time we’ll have more crowd than Mr. Gushue,” McEwen said a smile. “That doesn’t happen too often. It really feels good to have that.”
Team Gushue will have to play the role of the heels facing a pro-McEwen crowd although it worked in their favour during an identical scenario for the 2014 Masters in Selkirk, Man.
“The crowd has been great and obviously they’re all going to be cheering for Mike tomorrow and rightfully so,” Gushue said. “Winnipeg is such a knowledgeable curling community that they’re going to acknowledge our good shots, so hopefully we give them enough good shots as they can acknowledge but certainly the big cheers are going to be for Mike and we understand that. I hope they’re loud. It’s the hometown boys and it’s the way it should be.”
Koe opened with the hammer, but Gushue jumped out to a 2-up lead stealing consecutive ends to start. It was risk but no reward for Koe in the first end as he ran a guard back into the pile but nudged his own and left Gushue’s shot rock untouched.
Another tricky shot in the second saw Koe hit off his own but rolled under Gushue’s counter for another steal.
“We got off to a good start,” Gushue said. “The first couple ends we made some big shots to kind of get us out of trouble and really put the advantage back on our side. We definitely got an uncharacteristic miss from Kevin in the second end. That was one I expected him to make. The first was a really tough shot and he actually gave us one when it looked like we had a force locked up. Then really, just hung on.”
After pushes in three and four, Koe got on the scoreboard in the fifth with a sharp pick to send Gushue’s rock out the back door and cut the deficit in half.
It was a missed opportunity for Gushue in the sixth as he had a draw for the point but his rock hung out there heavy. He was able to force a push in the seventh to reclaim the hammer coming home but had to bail things out on his last with a runback double takeout.
“We played a few good ends [but] missed a few opportunities,” Gushue said. “I had a draw in six there for a skin that was a little bit heavy and the eighth end was just a disaster. We were just banging away trying to open up a shot and still had to make a tough double and fortunately just clipped enough of the back one to make it.
“Fortunate to get away with a win. Kevin’s team played really well and they’ve been playing well all week based on the stats, so fortunate to get through.”
McEwen is going to be looking to make every shot count against Gushue in order to win.
“It’s really just you put it all out there, you look for some big shots and big moments,” he said. “It’s going to come down to who’s hot, I think. If we’re not hot, they’re going to beat us and vice versa but I expect them to be good. We’ll have to be sharp and really hang in there. Hopefully, B.J. and I can make some really big shots. I feel like my front end is playing superb, so hopefully, the back end does the same.”
Match play rules are in effect at the Princess Auto Elite 10 where teams compete to win the most ends per game by either counting two or more rocks (with the hammer) or stealing at least one (without the hammer). If the score is tied after eight ends, a draw-to-the-button shootout will determine the winner.
Gushue believes the style suits McEwen and B.J. Neufeld well.
“They love throwing high, hard ones and some of those angle raises and in-offs and things like that,” Gushue said. “I think the key for us tomorrow is making sure we get the rocks in position early. We’ve kind of been a little sporadic through the week. We’ve done good jobs for stretches and then we’ve done really bad jobs for stretches. Hopefully, we can do a good job of that tomorrow.”
While Team McEwen is breaking up after the season, the crew of Gushue, third Mark Nichols, second Brett Gallant and lead Geoff Walker announced earlier this week they’ll be sticking around for another Olympic cycle.
Both teams have captured the Elite 10 previously. McEwen was the inaugural winner in 2015 while Gushue, who is a nine-time Grand Slam champion, was victorious the following season. It’s the first Pinty’s Grand Slam of Curling final in 2017-18 for McEwen and No. 3 for Gushue, who claimed the Tour Challenge Tier 1 and Masters titles to start the season.
NOTES: The Princess Auto Elite 10 is the fifth tournament of the Pinty’s Grand Slam of Curling season. … The winning team earns an invitation to the season-ending Humpty’s Champions Cup taking place April 24-29 at Calgary’s WinSport Arena.