Roar of the Rings notebook: Koe closing in on Olympic dream

Kevin Koe watches his stone during Draw 16 of the Roar of the Rings on Dec. 7, 2017, in Ottawa. (Anil Mungal)

Curling is Kevin Koe’s business … and business is good. You’d better believe it.

With a playoff spot already locked at the Roar of the Rings, Koe clinched the crucial bye straight to the Canadian curling trials men’s championship game keeping his unblemished record intact with a 7-4 victory Thursday afternoon over John Morris.

Koe (7-0) had a second lifeline to earn the No. 1 seed with one round-robin game remaining against Brad Gushue but earning it earlier was the preferred option, obviously. The Calgary-based crew can rest easy now knowing they have secured a spot in Sunday night’s showdown to determine who will represent Canada at the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea.

Team Koe third Marc Kennedy and lead Ben Hebert have been down this road before winning the 2009 trials with legendary skip Kevin Martin while second Brent Laing was on the heartbreak side of those Roar of the Rings finishing runner-up with Glenn Howard.

Kennedy knows the importance of earning the bye — plus hammer and rock colour choice — for the final.

“It’s great. Mission accomplished: get to the final as quickly as possible and not have to battle one of the best teams in the world in the semifinal,” said Kennedy, who captured the gold medal at the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver. “That’s big. It gives us a couple days of rest to get the body feeling good and to come off of a game where we played pretty well in the last half. Everything is working out for us so far and we’re going to put ourselves in a good position for Sunday.”

Kennedy believes his team isn’t going to have a problem with the break between meaningful games.

“To be honest, I think it’s easy. I think we might even take a little bit of a mental break for a day,” he said. “It’s been a long, hard week but we’ve all been here before. The layoff isn’t going to be a bad thing for us. We’re getting older, man. We need the break and we want to come out Sunday night, feel refreshed and I think now we’re going to have that opportunity.”

While Koe’s place in the final is guaranteed, his opponent could end up being just anyone else in the field except for Morris, who was the only one officially ousted when they finished up in the 10th end (John Epping was knocked out moments later with a 7-6 extra-end loss to Brendan Bottcher). The second and third place teams will face off in Saturday’s semifinal although tiebreaker(s) may be required too pending the results of the remaining preliminary games with a traffic jam down the middle.

“It’s nice to avoid that mess,” Kennedy said. “You just try to stay out of that mess as best as you possibly can and we accomplished that. Now we can come out tomorrow against Brad and not have our life on the line. Maybe have an opportunity to knock out the defending world champion. We’re going to kind of sit back, watch and see over the next couple days and see what happens.”

Having played with Morris for a decade, Kennedy knew Thursday’s tilt was going to be a huge battle. The intensity was ramped up to the nth degree (as if it wasn’t high enough already) with his opponent’s Vernon, B.C., team hanging by a thread on the verge of elimination.

Morris returned to throwing third stones while calling the game with Jim Cotter tossing last rocks again during the match in a bid to reignite the spark from the pre-trials with nothing left to lose. The two had flipped around last month in Summerside, P.E.I., in a desperate attempt to shake things up and the switch propelled them all the way through the A-qualifier and into the Roar of the Rings.

“Yeah, we knew Johnny would come out and play pretty hard today,” Kennedy said with a bit of a sigh. “Jimmy actually made a lot of great shots, but we’ve just been kind of keeping to ourselves trying to do our own thing and not be too worried about who we’re playing. Try to make the shots for Kevin as easy as possible because he’s playing really well right now. It’s good to go on a high note into tomorrow night and I feel like we’re just getting better every game.”

Koe opened with the hammer, but was forced to draw for just one on the button in the first end after Cotter made an unlockable freeze. Cotter was clutch in the second as he drew against two and bumped on the backing by the button for the equalizer.

The 2016 world champion Koe settled for a single in three. Morris pulled up with a deuce in four before Koe reclaimed the lead 4-3 on an open hit for two of his own.

The shot of the game actually came in the one end without any scoring. With the rings split in the sixth including a pesky one hanging out on the porch, Koe made the crazy cross-house double takeout. Cotter fired a blank and Team Morris headed back to the drawing board.

“Whoa man, what a shot. It might be his best shot of the week,” Kennedy said. “Not many guys in the world that can make that shot but maybe one. Maybe Kevin Martin 20 years ago, that’s about it. He’s on fire and I’ve seen this Kevin before. Unfortunately, in the past, I haven’t played as well as I could have when he’s been playing great so hopefully this time we can support him a little bit better.”

Morris tied it back up in seven, but Koe counted another couple points in eight and stole one in nine to cushion the lead when Cotter missed a double takeout.

Koe peeled out the guard with his first skip stone in the 10th to leave Team Morris (1-5) nowhere to hide and ran them out of rocks with his last.

Team Koe had to be magicians with the Houdini act earlier in the week to sneak some victories but they’re now dialed in when it matters most.

“We definitely got some breaks earlier in the week and we fought through them as well,” Kennedy said. “You never earn those breaks but at least we were still in those games when you got those breaks. Maybe the old Team Koe might have let those games go a little bit earlier but we hung in there, got the breaks, knew that we were going to have to play better and now we are. Looking ahead, I think we’re playing well.”

Team Koe captured the 2016 Tim Hortons Brier in Ottawa coincidentally at TD Place Arena.

So what’s the men’s playoffs scenario?

This much we know for sure: There will be a new men’s team representing Canada at the 2018 Winter Games (and a new champion in South Korea as well) as reigning Olympic gold medallist Brad Jacobs was among those eliminated from contention Thursday night.

Jacobs beat Mike McEwen 6-3 to snap a three-game skid and improve to a 3-4 record, but fate wasn’t in his hands as Gushue topped Steve Laycock 8-5 to oust teams with four losses.

The 2006 Olympic gold medallist Gushue (5-2) now has an X beside his name in the standings clinching second place overall and will have the advantage for the semifinal against one of McEwen, Bottcher or Reid Carruthers.

“As long we get hammer, tomorrow night we can probably go out and be a little bit more relaxed,” Gushue said. “Maybe work on some other stuff and go out and enjoy the game. It’s been a grind especially for our team starting out the way we did, we’ve been grinding pretty hard, so tomorrow night maybe take it back a little bit and conserve. But certainly, don’t want to take it back so much that we lose some of the momentum that we’ve built.”

Bottcher (3-3) just so happens to play McEwen and Carruthers (both at 4-3) on Friday in the biggest day of his young career. If Bottcher wins both games he’s in clean at No. 3 with no tiebreakers.

It’s the only case Bottcher can qualify for the playoffs. One win and one loss will result in the victor over Bottcher advancing straight through.

The messiest situation is if Bottcher loses both games. Then there will be a tiebreaker Saturday morning between McEwen and Carruthers.

Carey Christmas! Calgary’s Chelsea Carey received quite the gift in a 9-8 win over Julie Tippin of Woodstock, Ont., to stay undefeated and on top of the women’s division.

Trailing by four in the ninth end, Carey (6-0) cut the deficit in half with a deuce and turned the pressure valve up to high while coming home without the hammer.

The 2016 Scotties Tournament of Hearts champion overwhelmed Tippin by putting all eight of her rocks in play including a quarry of four within the four-foot circle. Tippin (1-5) attempted to limit the damage to at least two for an extra end, but chipped off and couldn’t get in there to give up a steal of three to complete the Carey comeback.

“We had a couple opportunities, I had a shot for three,” Carey said. “I had a rock that curled a little more, we changed it out after that, but we feather rubbed on my last one in two and three that cost us probably a four or five points swing really. We felt OK about it and then we got a deuce back and we went, ‘OK, well, make eight shots and see what happens if we can make her throw against three. We didn’t expect to have them all piled around the button.

“It was certainly a grind. Essentially, it wasn’t a bad end, it was just a couple bad breaks on my shots that just worked out as bad as it could have. Handed them a four and with the ice being a little straighter it is conducive to peeling. They didn’t miss a whole lot because it’s just really nice ice for peeling right now so we thought uh-oh. You don’t expect to pull off that, two down coming home, but we’ll take it. There have been stranger things that have happened this week, I think.”

Krista McCarville of Thunder Bay, Ont., kept her playoff hopes alive defeating Winnipeg’s Jennifer Jones 7-3.

After a force in the first, McCarville (4-2) stole a point in the second, held Jones to one in three and tacked on two in five to extend her lead 4-1 at the break.

Jones (5-2) could only get one back in six but stole the seventh to close back within one.

A single for McCarville in eight made it a 5-3 game but it was all over after the ninth following a risky call by Jones that led to no reward. The reigning Olympic gold medallist went for a tricky angle raise in an attempt to take out two counters and possibly tie the game but the promoted stone went sideways to miss the target, concede the pair of points and bring out the handshakes.

McCarville, Jones, Carey and Ottawa’s Rachel Homan are all in the mix for playoffs with Carey clinching a spot and Homan guaranteed at least a tiebreaker. Homan was sharp on her final shot again for a single to secure a 7-5 victory and vanquish Edmonton’s Val Sweeting (3-4).

The women’s playoff picture will most likely come down to the wire before it becomes any clearer. McCarville plays Carey in the morning draw, which should help limit the number of possible outcomes as all four could finish with 6-2 records.

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