Jason Gunnlaugson shoots a stone during the 2018 Meridian Canadian Open in Camrose, Alta. (Anil Mungal)

Gunnlaugson, Jacobs grind into Canadian Open playoffs

January 18, 2018, 6:09 PM

CAMROSE, Alta. — Winnipeg’s Jason Gunnlaugson is grinding right through to the playoffs at the Meridian Canadian Open.

Gunnlaugson emerged victorious in a wild 8-7 extra-end victory over Toronto’s John Epping during Thursday’s A-qualifiers of the triple knockout round.

Team Gunnlaugson advances to the playoffs in a third consecutive Pinty’s Grand Slam of Curling tournament since their promotion by winning September’s Tour Challenge Tier 2 title.

Lead Connor Njegovan said he’s pretty surprised they made it through the A brackets.

“We’ve had a month off now and we’ve been practising really hard but we haven’t played any games since December,” Njegovan said. “You never know how you’re going to come out with a month of practice but we’ve been working really hard and it’s nice to see our hard work now paying off here.”

The scales tipped in Epping’s favour during the first half forcing Gunnlaugson to one in the first and scoring two in the second. Gunnlaugson had an opportunity for a deuce in the third but couldn’t cash in as his last over-curled and he had to settle for another single.

A double attempt failed for Gunnlaugson in the fourth as Epping’s pesky second stone remained untouched hanging at the back. Epping, who captured the Meridian Canadian Open title in 2015, drew for two and a 4-2 lead at the break.

The tide turned in the fifth just when it looked like Gunnlaugson was going to be forced to a single with Epping sitting second shot. Gunnlaugson somehow managed to pop out the rock from the cluster and count three.

With eight rocks sitting in a crowded house during the sixth, Epping sat shot rock but needed to draw from wide out to try and get two but his shooter dove and hit the blockade.

Epping’s last in seven came up short of the rings and Gunnlaugson just had to draw anywhere into the house for two and landed on the lid to lead 7-5.

The 2015 Meridian Canadian Open champion Epping had an opportunity to win it in the eighth with a thin double takeout to possibly score three but his shooter rolled up and collided with his other stone to only get two.

That still forced overtime though and Gunnlaugson missed one of his trademark runbacks on his first skip stone. Epping’s last locked onto his own guard and sweepers Njegovan and Ian McMillan brushed Gunnlaugson’s final rock furiously to make the soft bump on the counter by the button to secure his playoff spot.

“We’ve been working really hard this year on managing our sweeping and using our sweepers the best we can,” Njegovan said. “We’ve done a really good job and Jay’s done a really good job of using his sweepers and it was just one of those shots where we knew we had the big guy on the inside and we knew if we needed to I could hook it at the end. We’ve been working really hard on that shot. I wasn’t too surprised that he decided to play it.”

Gunnlaugson (3-0) goes straight through to Saturday’s quarterfinals with a bit of a break while Epping (2-1) has two more chances to qualify for the playoffs.

“I think we’ll just rest up and stick to our routine here,” Njegovan said. “We’ve been having a lot of fun this week and it’s good to be back curling and hopefully the momentum carries through after the day off.”

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Elsewhere, Brad Jacobs of Sault Ste. Marie, Ont., also continued his strong play with a 6-3 win over Peter de Cruz of Switzerland in the other A final. Trailing by one, Jacobs (3-0) scored two in the sixth and stole a pair in the eighth to advance to Saturday’s quarterfinals and take the top seed.

Winnipeg’s Mike McEwen got back on track with a 6-3 win over defending champion Brad Gushue of St. John’s, N.L., during a B-side battle. McEwen (2-1) stays put in B while Gushue (1-2) falls to the C stage.

Scotland’s Bruce Mouat rallied to beat American John Shuster 8-5 in another B event match. After Shuster scored four in the fourth to lead 5-2, it was all Mouat from there with a three-ender right back to tie it in the fifth followed by back-to-back steals.

Calgary’s Chelsea Carey (2-1) sprinted out to another victory downing American Jamie Sinclair 9-2 in the women’s B event.

Carey scored a deuce in the first, stole three in the second and two in the third to cruise away with a 7-0 lead. Sinclair, who fell to the C side at 1-2, took two in the fourth but Carey continued to add to her count with a single in five and another steal in six.

Sixteen of the top men’s teams and 16 of the top women’s team from around the world are competing in the fourth tournament — and third major — of the 2017-18 Pinty’s Grand Slam of Curling season.

The Meridian Canadian Open features a triple knockout preliminary format where teams must win three games before they lose three in order to qualify for the weekend playoffs. Eight teams advance in both men’s and women’s divisions.

Action at Encana Arena resumes with Draw 9 at 4 p.m. MT on Sportsnet East, West, Pacific and online at Sportsnet NOW (Canada) or gsoc.yaretv.com (international).

NOTES: Winners of the Meridian Canadian Open earn berths to the season-ending Humpty’s Champions Cup running April 24-29 at Calgary’s WinSport Arena. … Points are also up for grabs for the Bonus Cup, awarded to the overall season champions.