CALGARY — In a Canadian men's curling championship loaded with uncertainty, one of its most consistent performers keeps on delivering.
The next step for top-seeded Kevin Koe is a chance at another Tim Hortons Brier title and a spot in the record books.
The Wild Card Two skip defeated Wild Card Three's Wayne Middaugh 7-6 on Saturday night to earn a direct berth into the final. Koe's Alberta-based team secured the first seed in the championship pool at 10-2.
Koe will face the winner of Sunday's semifinal between Saskatchewan's Matt Dunstone and Alberta's Brendan Bottcher.
"That's why we curl," said Koe second John Morris. "It's to play in major championship finals because that's where it's the most exciting and that's what really gets your blood pumping.
"That's what separates the champions from coming really close."
Dunstone and Bottcher also posted evening victories to make the three-team cut at 9-3. The semifinal winner will meet Koe in the evening final at the Markin MacPhail Centre.
Dunstone beat Manitoba's Jason Gunnlaugson 9-6 and Bottcher dumped Canada's Brad Gushue 8-2.
Bottcher has made the last three Brier finals and settled for silver each time. Dunstone finished third in last year's playoff.
Koe is looking to win his fifth Brier title as a skip, which would give him sole possession of a record he shares with Ernie Richardson, Randy Ferbey and Kevin Martin.
Koe locked up the win when Middaugh settled for two points on a double-takeout attempt in the 10th end. A third point would have forced an extra end.
"I'm really happy for the guys to stick in there and battle," Koe said. "We got fortunate, put them under some pressure, they had a few misses and obviously it feels great. Any game you can save is monstrous here."
Middaugh's remarkable run ended with an 8-4 record. Originally tabbed as an alternate, he switched positions with injured skip Glenn Howard and threw fourth stones in his first competitive event in over five years.
Gushue also missed the cut at 8-4. Northern Ontario's Brad Jacobs defeated Ontario's John Epping 9-3 in the other night game to leave both teams at 7-5. Gunnlaugson finished at 6-6.
Earlier in the day, Koe dumped Gunnlaugson 12-4 and Middaugh dropped a 6-3 decision to Gushue to create a four-way tie for second place. Dunstone edged Jacobs 5-4 and Bottcher topped Epping 8-3.
Wild Card Three was caught off guard by the sanding of rocks before the afternoon draw.
Howard planned to protest after not being told about the papering beforehand. Some players on other teams learned of the sanding by talking to the ice crew but not everyone was aware.
Freshly sanded stones have a significant effect on a rock's curl and speed.
Curling Canada admitted that teams were not formally informed due to a regrettable "communication breakdown." The federation said it will "review its procedures going forward."
Jacobs and Gunnlaugson knew they would miss the cut after the afternoon draw.
A variety of tiebreaker scenarios were still in play entering the evening. Late night and early morning tiebreakers were a possibility along with a double semifinal in the event of a four-way tie for first place.
Gushue, who has won the Brier in three of the last four years, beat Bottcher to win gold last year in Kingston, Ont. Bottcher was 3-8 in his Brier debut in 2017 before taking silver the next three years.
"Personally I can say I've learned a ton from each of the three experiences," Bottcher said of playing on the closing Sunday. "One of the biggest things is you've got to find a way to relax.
"I mean it's just a game of curling. You've got to go back to the roots and go back to the basics and do all the things that got you to here."
The Brier winner will represent Canada at the world men's curling championship next month in the same Canada Olympic Park venue.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 13, 2021.