Team Jones celebrate its victory at the Pinty's Grand Slam of Curling: BOOST National in Sault Ste. Marie Ont., on Nov. 19, 2017. (Anil Mungal)

8 Ends: Jones charged up heading into Olympic Trials

November 21, 2017, 4:09 PM

SAULT STE. MARIE, Ont. — The dress rehearsals are over, it’s time for the big show.

This past weekend’s BOOST National at the Essar Centre was the final major test for those heading to Ottawa for the Canadian Olympic Curling Trials, dubbed the Roar of the Rings, just under two weeks time. For some, the BOOST National was a chance to tighten up or maintain the status quo while for those struggling at the opposite end of the spectrum, it might be time to hit the reset button.

This week’s Eight Ends column highlights our takeaways from the BOOST National.

1st End: Jones charged up ahead of Olympic Trials

Back-to-back like on the cover of Lethal Weapon (or like Jordan ’96, ’97), has Winnipeg’s Jennifer Jones in the driver’s seat leading up to the Olympic Trials. Team Jones swept through the Masters last month and cruised through the National as well for a second consecutive Pinty’s Grand Slam of Curling championship to boost its winning streak to a remarkable 14 consecutive games.

Jones captured her record ninth career women’s title in the series clipping Casey Scheidegger of Lethbridge, Alta., 8-7 in Sunday’s final.

The Olympic Trials is a completely different beast though not just in terms of the pressure of what’s on the line but even fundamentally from eight ends and five-rock rule at the GSOC to 10 ends and four-rock rule. Longer games and fewer rocks in play each end means the tournament length will take its toll and each mistake will be magnified.

No Canadian women’s team has repeated at the Olympic Trials since the process began in 1997 and Jones is poised to become the first.

Jones was practically perfect during the last Olympic Trials going 6-1 through round-robin play and defeating Sherry Middaugh in the final to represent Canada at the 2014 Sochi Games. The magic continued in Russia as well with Team Jones becoming the first women’s club to run the Olympic table for gold.

This is the moment they’ve been planning for since stepping off of that podium and they appear to be playing at that same level once again.

2nd End: Perfect storm for Mouat at BOOST National

National? More like International. It was just the second time ever in the Pinty’s Grand Slam of Curling a men’s final featured two non-Canadian teams pitting Bruce Mouat’s club from Scotland against Chang-Min Kim and his crew from South Korea.

Both were on fire heading into the final, but Mouat was able to cool Kim 9-4 in Sunday’s championship game.

Mouat became the youngest men’s skip to capture a Pinty’s Grand Slam of Curling championship at age 23. Compatriot Eve Muirhead was 22 when she claimed the Players’ Championship women’s title in 2013.

With Great Britain already selecting Kyle Smith’s squad for its Winter Olympics berth, it was the right timing for Mouat, who had nothing to lose and was playing with house money, to go for broke, play loose and take on risky shots that paid off. The same could be said for Kim, who already had his Olympic spot secured representing the host nation.

Meanwhile, the Canadian teams at the event were either physically and mentally drained arriving straight from the pre-trials or wound up tightly preparing for the Olympic Trials.

It showed in the final with Team Mouat playing lights out especially in the sixth end on their skip’s shots — with back-to-back beauties — to tighten their grasp on the game and force Kim to a single point.

3rd End: Scheidegger continues to heat up

Casey Scheidegger had yet to even play in a top-tier Pinty’s Grand Slam of Curling tournament at this point last season. Now with one championship in the case and consistent playoff appearances in the series, the reigning Meridian Canadian Open champion Scheidegger has emerged as a top contender seemingly out of nowhere.

Three-enders have dictated the way Scheidegger’s team has played this season, both positive and negative, and Jones jumped out of the gate during the final with a trey in the first. That put Scheidegger in an early hole and kept Jones one step ahead with deuces wild and single steals the rest of the way.

Team Scheidegger still played a very good game and a club that wasn’t on the radar for the Winter Olympics at the start of the calendar now finds itself as a serious threat.

4th End: Kim sensational in series debut

Kim was a complete wild card entering the BOOST National. While the team had been making noise in smaller tour events and captured the Pacific-Asia championship the week prior, how they would fare in their Pinty’s Grand Slam of Curling debut was a complete mystery.

Just fine, it turned out.

We learned quickly what they were made of winning three straight games to qualify for the playoffs and reach the final before the wheels fell off. Kim shot 57 percent in the championship game giving up steals in a couple ends and misfiring his last to give Mouat an open hit to score the dagger four-ender in the seventh.

We haven’t seen the last of Team Kim, in fact, their Pacific-Asia victory earned them a spot in the season-ending Humpty’s Champions Cup. Even before that though, their strong tour year could get them into the next tournament in the series, the Meridian Canadian Open.

5th End: “Gu” gone in quarterfinals

The winning streak finally came to an end for Brad Gushue. The St. John’s, N.L., crew swept through the Tour Challenge Tier 1 and Masters and ran its winning streak to start the season in the series to 17 games. Of all teams, it was John Morris and his Vernon, B.C., club — who were the complete opposites starting the GSOC season at 0-11 — that managed to fan the flames against Gushue.

Still, Gushue had qualified for the playoffs at 3-1 but was bounced in the quarterfinals by Winnipeg’s Mike McEwen. From a sparkling winning streak to a losing skid in an instant (sarcasm, of course).

Upon further inspection, Gushue’s loss was inevitable and even the nine-time Pinty’s Grand Slam of Curling champion would admit the winning streak was deceptive. Gushue started out with extra-end wins over McEwen and Mouat, the latter of which required a late rally, followed by a one-point victory against Greg Balsdon, who had the hammer in the decisive eighth end and a shot to win it. Some bad luck here or there and Gushue could have easily gone 0-4.

The good thing for Gushue is the team now has practice ice back home finally, which should help the reigning Brier and world champions sharpen up and work out the bugs before the Olympic Trials.

6th End: Homan, Sweeting back on track

Ottawa’s Rachel Homan and Edmonton’s Val Sweeting were both aiming to turn the page at the BOOST National.

Homan, who missed the playoffs at the Tour Challenge Tier 1 and the Masters, dropped her opening night game to Tracy Fleury before picking up three consecutive wins to qualify for the playoffs. The team didn’t get outplayed that much by Team Scheidegger in the quarterfinals — both fired at 80 percent clips — but a key three-ender for Scheidegger in the fifth end proved to be the difference-maker in the 7-4 decision. Perhaps it’s just the five-rock rule as Scheidegger holds a 4-1 win-loss record against Homan in the Pinty’s Grand Slam of Curling, whereas it’s 5-0 for Homan elsewhere on tour.

The mental aspect of preparation is key for Team Homan and they weren’t trying to peak just yet, only get stronger ahead of the Olympic Trials.

In Sweeting’s case, her team went 7-0 through the Tour Challenge Tier 1 but the skip admitted she struggled to get a read of the ice at the Masters and when she finally did in her last round-robin game it was too late finishing at 1-3. Sweeting went 4-0 through the BOOST National round-robin, including an 8-0 thumping over Calgary’s Chelsea Carey, but came up short in the Battle of Alberta rematch during the quarterfinals.

7th End: Gunnlaugson on target to contend

Winnipeg’s Jason Gunnlaugson continues to knock on the door of opportunity in the Pinty’s Grand Slam of Curling. Gunnlaugson, who won September’s Tour Challenge Tier 2 to earn a spot back in the big leagues, has proven his team belongs among the best running through the round-robin at 4-0 to advance to the playoffs for the second major tournament in a row.

It’s reminiscent of fellow Winnipegger Reid Carruthers’s rise a couple seasons ago where his team qualified consistently and then reached multiple finals before winning the 2016 Humpty’s Champions Cup to establish themselves among the top five in the world. Gunnlaugson could be heading for a similar upward trajectory if the team continues to grow.

8th End: Quick hits

- The week didn’t go as planned for either of the defending champions. Hometown hero Brad Jacobs fell in a men’s tiebreaker to Mouat while Kerri Einarson got out to a 0-3 start for early elimination. Team Jacobs had to go through the tiebreaker stage again, but came up short to Team Mouat and the reigning Olympic gold medallists were simply outplayed. Einarson, who arrived at the event right from the pre-trials, ended her run on a high note at least defeating Jacqueline Harrison in her final round-robin game.

- It was a heartbreaking end for John Epping after such a strong run leading up to the semifinals against Kim and when it looked like he had the game in hand. Epping broke a tie in the seventh end with an angle raise for three only for Kim to reply with a trio of his own and force an extra end. The Toronto native Epping had the hammer in OT but came up short on his first skip stone and misfired the runback with his last. Kudos to Kim as well for getting his last rock out with only four seconds remaining on his thinking time clock.

Extra End: See you in 2018

That’s a wrap for the 2017 portion of the Pinty’s Grand Slam of Curling season as we take a break for now. The series kicks off the New Year with the Meridian Canadian Open running Jan. 16-21 at the Encana Arena in Camrose, Alta.

Full-event passes also just went on sale for the Princess Auto Elite 10 taking place March 15-18, 2018, in Winnipeg at St. James Civic Centre. Purchase yours today for the special early bird rate.

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