Team Gushue's Mark Nichols at the 2016 WFG Masters in Okotoks, Alta. (Photo: Anil Mungal)

Nichols skips Team Gushue into WFG Masters playoffs

October 28, 2016, 12:19 AM

OKOTOKS, Alta. — No Brad Gushue? No problem for the St. John’s, N.L., team it seems.

The No. 1 ranked rink in the world continued their playoff streak to start the season minus their superstar skip, who has yet to play this year due to a lingering hip injury, by qualifying in their sixth consecutive event on the calendar at the WFG Masters.

Third Mark Nichols, who won Olympic gold with Gushue in 2006, skipped the team to a 7-4 victory over Glenn Howard, of Penetanguishene, Ont., during Thursday’s evening draw to climb to a 3-0 record at the Pinty’s Grand Slam of Curling tournament.

“Everyone’s surprised,” Nichols said with a smile. “We just go out and play well and we’ve been getting some breaks but we’ve been playing really well. We’re really happy where we are.”

After conceding a deuce to Howard in the sixth that tied it 4-4, Nichols looked to blank seven and retain the hammer coming home. It didn’t go as planned in a good way for the squad as the team split the rings and Howard just grazed by one rock with his last allowing Nichols to ease his final rock into the paint for three.

“You play it cautious like that and if they make a great shot you’re hoping for a blank, but we got really fortunate with Glenn’s last one,” Nichols said. “You take your three when you can get it.”

Nichols sat a cluster of rocks around the four-foot circle after his first skip stone in eight and then ran Howard out of rocks with his second to bring out handshakes.

Charley Thomas of Didsbury, Alta., is filling it at third this week with second Brett Gallant and lead Geoff Walker remaining in their front-end roles.

It’s like the old times again for Thomas and Walker, who claimed back-to-back world junior titles together in 2006 and 2007.

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Elsewhere, Toronto’s John Epping moved up to a 2-1 record and is in good standing to qualify with the best draw-to-the-button shootout score.

Epping earned his second victory of the day defeating Calgary’s Kevin Koe 4-2 following a sketchy victory earlier in the day over Peter de Cruz with back-to-back steals in the final two ends to win.

“Grinding wins,” Epping said. “The first one this morning against De Cruz we got a little fortunate. It’s very rare you go steal-steal to win a game. We kind of hung around and felt like we were a little bit out of it but a couple of breaks here and there and tonight was the same thing. A few fortunate breaks tonight and we got the victory against Koe and that’s obviously really big for us. One win tomorrow and we’ll be in the playoffs.”

Second Pat Janssen returned to the Team Epping lineup this week after missing their past two tour events following surgery to repair a fractured orbital bone. Janssen fell face-first onto the ice during a curling clinic the team was conducting four weeks ago. Team Epping has been heating up, winning a tour title in Gatineau prior to arriving in Okotoks, as Epping aims to capture the elusive Masters title and complete a career Grand Slam.

“Everything feels the same as before and that’s key,” Epping said. “You want to have that same feeling. We’re glad that he’s rested and glad that he took that extra week off just to make sure he’s back. The Slams are such important events and especially with the Canada Cup coming we don’t want to have to risk him missing those big events.”

Koe, the reigning world champion, fell to a 1-2 record as Epping appears to have his number winning six of their past eight meetings.

“It’s just funny how that happens,” Epping said. “It’s very rare you can say that about a team like them because they’re so good, they make so many shots and they’re so consistent. We’ll definitely take that.”

Winnipeg’s Mike McEwen (2-1) edged Kyle Smith of Scotland 6-5. Smith fell to 1-2 and needs to win his final round-robin game Friday to stay in contention.

EunJung Kim of South Korea also qualified with a 3-0 record stealing in the eighth end to slip past Ottawa’s Rachel Homan 6-5. Homan, the defending Masters champion, holds a 2-1 record and the best shootout score on the women’s side.

Winnipeg’s Kerri Einarson stayed in the mix picking up her first win beating Tracy Fleury of Sudbury, Ont., 7-5. Both teams are at 1-2.

NOTES: The WFG Masters is the first of seven events on the 2016-17 Pinty’s GSOC schedule. … The event is also the first of four majors in the series alongside the Boost National, Meridian Canadian Open and WestJet Players’ Championship. … The WFG Masters runs through to Sunday at Pason Centennial Arena with play resuming at 9 a.m. MT.