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Ontario's Howard leads Brier final four into playoffs

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The Canadian Press
3/9/2013 1:14:18 AM
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EDMONTON -- Ontario's Glenn Howard dominated the preliminary round of the Canadian men's curling championship. He wishes his team was rewarded for it.

The defending champions won 10 in a row in Edmonton to secure the top playoff seeding early at the Tim Hortons Brier.

Manitoba, Newfoundland and Labrador and Northern Ontario had to battle to the end and win their final games Friday to claim the other three playoff berths.

Howard, third Wayne Middaugh, and front end Brent Laing and Craig Savill were above the fray having assured themselves of winning the round robin the previous day.

They finished 10-1 with a 6-5 loss Friday to Alberta's Kevin Martin, who fell short of the playoffs at 7-4.

"If you would have told me 10-1 before we got here, I'd mail that baby in," Howard said.

No other team produced more than eight wins. Manitoba's Jeff Stoughton, Newfoundland's Brad Gushue and Northern Ontario's Brad Jacobs were 8-3 and seeded for playoffs in that order.

The three teams were 1-1 against each other, so were ranked according to their accumulated scores on pre-game draws for hammer.

In the Page playoff, Howard and Stoughton meet Saturday afternoon with the winner going directly to Sunday evening's final.

The loser drops to Sunday morning's semifinal to face the winner of Saturday night's playoff between Newfoundland and Northern Ontario, with the semifinal winner heading to the final.

As the top seed, Howard will have hammer to start Saturday's playoff game. Ontario also has first choice of rocks from the four sheets of ice to create their playoff set.

Those are small advantages, Howard concedes. Beyond those two perks, he feels all the work they did in the round robin doesn't give them much safety in the playoffs.

The top two teams get a second life in the Page playoffs because the loser of the game between them isn't eliminated, so Howard argues finishing second is almost as good as first.

"I've never liked the Page system. Can't stand it," Howard said. "It's never made any sense to me, especially if there's an outright winner of the round robin. There's no advantage. We could conceivably go 11-0 and someone could come in at 8-3.

"I always thought the winner of the round robin should get the bye to the final. We could conceivably end up fourth which doesn't make sense to me. We've played everybody once. To me, the winner of the round-robin should go to the final."

That was the scenario for 15 years after a playoff format was introduced to the Brier in 1980.

In 1995, the Page playoff was instituted to give both the Brier host committee and the host broadcaster another game on the final weekend to draw spectators to the building and viewers to their televisions.

The team finishing first in the round robin has won the Canadian title 13 of 18 years since then. Glenn Howard (2007, 2012) is part of that group, but he's also twice topped the round-robin standings and didn't win (2006, 2010).

Ontario, Manitoba and Alberta were considered the pre-tournament favourites. Four-time Canadian champion Kevin Martin won six in a row, but a 1-4 start to the tournament was the hometown team's undoing.

With the win over Howard, Martin needed a Manitoba loss to B.C.'s Andrew Bilesky on the next sheet next to get a tiebreaker game.

Rexall Place turned raucous late in the draw, cheering against Howard and Stoughton and chanting their names like they were the goaltenders on an opposing NHL team.

But Stoughton's draw for a 6-5 win in an extra end meant Martin will not set a record this year for the most Briers won by a skip.

"It was hard just because there was lots of yelling and people wanting you to miss which is a little unusual in the game," Stoughton said. "It took a lot to calm down and relax and know you had to throw it pretty light just to make up for a little excitement."

Martin's elimination wasn't good for the host committee. It was going to be a stretch for the 2013 Brier to come close to the attendance record of 281,985 set by Edmonton in 2005, but the host team's absence on the final weekend be a drag on ticket sales.

Jacobs, whose finished third at the 2010 Brier, scored three in the 10th end against Nova Scotia for a 5-2 win and a playoff berth.

"I'm elated by this," the 27-year-old skip said. "We've made the playoff and we have a shot to win the Brier so we're real happy."

Gushue, the 2006 Olympic champion, has reached the Brier playoff seven times in 10 appearances, but he has yet to win it and his team this year is low on Brier experience.

Third Brett Gallant is playing his first Canadian men's championship and front end Adam Casey and Geoff Walker their second in as many years.

After a seven-game winning streak, Newfoundland lost to Manitoba, Ontario and Alberta before clinching a playoff berth with a victory against Quebec's Jean-Michel Menard.

"To finally be on the right side of a well-played game is nice," Gushue said. "We probably played better in the last four than in the first seven. It seems like people are making a lot of shots against us and fortunately we're making a lot of shots too to make them good games."

Menard, the 2006 Canadian champion, finished with a 6-5 record ahead of Jamie Koe of the Territories, James Grattan of New Brunswick and Brock Virtue of Saskatchewan all at 5-6.

Prince Edward Island's Eddie MacKenzie was 2-9. Nova Scotia's Paul Flemming and B.C.'s Bilesky were both 1-10.

Glenn Howard (Photo: The Canadian Press)

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(Photo: The Canadian Press)
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