Team Koe clips short-handed Team Gushue at Players’ Championship

Kevin Koe shoots a stone during the fifth draw of the Players' Championship on April 11, 2018, in Toronto. (Anil Mungal)

TORONTO — A late six-ender almost wasn’t enough for Kevin Koe to take down Brad Gushue’s short-handed squad Wednesday night at the Players’ Championship.

You can thank the Pinty’s Grand Slam of Curling’s five-rock free-guard zone rule for allowing Koe to claw back from a three-point deficit to pull ahead in the sixth but also needing to hold on in the remaining two ends and down to the wire to win 10-8.

The Gushue crew from St. John’s, N.L., was without second Brett Gallant, who headed home to attend his grandfather’s funeral and missed Wednesday’s action. Lead Geoff Walker and third Mark Nichols threw an extra rock each and handled sweeping duties solo.

“They might only be playing with three but it’s three pretty good curlers,” Team Koe third Marc Kennedy said. “Any time Mark Nichols is throwing three rocks there’s a good chance they’re going to beat you.

“We just hung in there. We definitely got some misses there in the sixth end but that’s the nice part about the five-rock rule is it’s hard for teams to just run away. We got some uncharacteristic misses from Brad on his freezes and Kevin made some great shots, so good for us.”

Gushue, who earned silver at the world championship this past Sunday, said it’ll be nice to have Gallant back in the lineup Thursday.

“It’s a hard day on Mark and Geoff with a lot of sweeping and it’s hard even throwing draws when you’ve got one guy because you don’t have as big a window to throw in,” Gushue said. “It burnt us a little bit. We had to play two freezes on mine in the sixth end tonight and I just overthrew them a little bit because, like I said, you don’t have that window. It kind of sucks but to have Brett back tomorrow hopefully we can get a couple more wins.”

The Calgary-based Koe, who represented Canada at the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics, climbed to a 2-0 record on the second day of the pinnacle Pinty’s Grand Slam of Curling tournament following an earlier 7-3 victory over Toronto’s own John Epping.

“A really good start and in this field, I think 3-2 gets you into the playoffs, so one more win and we should be in there,” Kennedy said. “A good start against some good teams and we’ll take it.”

It was a fierce back-and-forth evening battle as Koe took two in the opening end and Gushue matched with his own pair of points in the second. After Koe settled for a single in three, Gushue gained some separation on the scoreboard with another deuce in four followed by a double steal in five to make it 6-3.

Koe bounced back big time from his miss putting on the pressure and hitting to score the huge six-pointer.

Gushue closed the gap to 9-8 with another count of two in the seventh, but gave up the hammer to Koe for the final frame. The pressure was still on Koe in the eighth end as he had to draw against two with the last rock of the game and landed right on the tee line to secure the victory.

“Take a six-ender and you still have to throw your last one to the tee line but that’s what makes the five-rock rule so great,” Kennedy said. “You can’t run away, big ends are a possibility and you’ve got to keep making shots. They played a perfect seventh and eighth end to put us in some trouble, but Kevin made a really good draw.”

Earlier, Gushue doubled up on Edmonton’s Brendan Bottcher 8-4 in a rematch of this year’s Brier final although giving up the six-ender to Koe stun hard.

“I think if you told us coming in we’d split with three players I probably would have taken it but certainly after five ends there today I wouldn’t have taken it,” Gushue said. “We played a pretty ugly sixth end, we missed our first four shots, and the next four we missed by mere inches and just didn’t get the rocks in perfect position.

“They were set up for a three or four and we were trying to minimize that and ended up giving up six. That happens with the five-rock and we’ve been pretty fortunate it hasn’t happened to us much in our career but that was an ugly end.”

The Players’ Championship features 12 of the top men’s teams and 12 of the top women’s teams in the world. Teams are split into two pools for round-robin play with the best eight overall qualifying for the weekend playoffs. The GSOC’s Bonus Cup, awarded to the season men’s and women’s champions, will also be handed out following the conclusion of the Players’ Championship.

Elsewhere in the fifth draw, Bottcher rebounded from his loss to Gushue by hammering Epping 7-1. Bottcher is now at 1-1 while Epping slipped to 1-2.

Recently crowned world champion Niklas Edin of Sweden also went 2-0 Wednesday following a 9-6 extra-end victory over Mike McEwen from Winnipeg. McEwen, who earned his seventh GSOC title last month at the Princess Auto Elite 10, fell to a 0-2 record.

Edin, who defeated Gushue during the worlds final in Las Vegas, beat Winnipeg’s Jason Gunnlaugson 6-4 to start his Players’ Championship title defence.

Olympic gold medallist John Shuster from Duluth, Minn., bested Winnipeg’s Reid Carruthers 8-5.

Shuster (1-0) switched up the throwing order moving down a spot while third Tyler George handled skip duties.

Carruthers (0-2) also has an unorthodox lineup this week with super spare Jeff Stoughton playing third and calling the game. The four-time Grand Slam title winner Stoughton, who stepped back from curling following the 2015 Players’ Championship, is filling in with third Braeden Moskowy leaving the team.

Kyle Smith downed Bruce Mouat 8-3 in a battle between Scottish squads. Both teams are even with 1-1 records.

Round-robin action resumes Thursday at 8:30 a.m. ET at Ryerson’s Mattamy Athletic Centre with television coverage beginning at Noon ET on Sportsnet with online streaming available at Sportsnet NOW (Canada) and Yare TV (international).

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