EDMONTON -- Christmas came early for Jeff Stoughton at the Canadian men's curling championship on Saturday, as Ontario skip Glenn Howard -- for reasons that will forever be known only to him and his team -- decided to gift-wrap a berth in the Brier final for Stoughton.
With a stunning 7-6 victory over Ontario in the Page playoff 1 vs. 2 game Saturday afternoon -- in which Manitoba scored a game-winning three in the 10th end thanks to a shocking tactical error by Howard -- Stoughton will play for his fourth Brier title, and second in three years, tonight at Rexall Place (7:30 p.m., TSN).
In a game that Ontario controlled from the second end and which seemed destined to end in a Manitoba loss and relegation to this morning's semifinal, Stoughton was still struggling to comprehend his sudden good fortune as he emerged from the ice to face reporters and was asked how it feels to be competing in his fifth career Brier final.
"I don't know yet. I haven't digested this win," said Stoughton. "When something like that happens, it's a little surreal. Just because you're not expecting to win yet. You're just thinking, 'OK, let's get our deuce and we go the extra end and you never know.' So to pull it off now, I can't wait... it's going to be fantastic."
Howard's tactical error in the 10th end will be discussed by Canadian curling fans for years to come, but Manitoba third Jon Mead summed it up succinctly: "We got horse- lucky."
Here was the situation:
With Ontario leading Manitoba 6-4, Howard was confronted with two Manitoba counters in the house and one more Stoughton rock still to come when Howard went to throw his last rock of the 10th end.
Howard had a myriad of options that might have won him the game in the 10th end or, at worst, sent it to an extra end. But there was also one other option -- a very tricky double takeout of the two Manitoba counters -- that offered Ontario the opportunity to win the game immediately, but which also presented the only scenario in which Howard could lose the game in regulation.
After a short on-ice debate about their team's options, Howard elected the high risk, high reward shot -- and got all of the former and none of the latter when his double takeout attempt racked on his own guard and missed both Stoughton stones, leaving Stoughton needing only a simple draw to the full 12-foot for the game-winning three-ender.
Stoughton made it -- after a vigorous three-player scrub -- and a stunned Howard was left to explain what on earth he was thinking. "Yeah, that one got away. That was a little unfortunate," Howard offered in one of the biggest understatements you'll ever hear at a Brier.
Howard insisted he had no regrets about the call. "I have a shot to win the game which really isn't that tough and the yellow (Ontario) rock shouldn't have been in play," said Howard, adding his final shot curled way more than he thought it would. "The bottom line is I missed."
Asked about Howard's shot selection, Stoughton said he would have played more conservatively and lived to fight on in the extra end. And the statistics support Stoughton: According to curlingzone.com, Howard is 15-3 in extra-end games in which he has hammer going back to 2009-10. And Stoughton is 2-6 in extra end games in which he doesn't have hammer during the same period.
Stoughton will play the winner of this morning's semifinal between Howard and Northern Ontario's Brad Jacobs. Howard won his first 10 games of this Brier, but the defending world champions limp into today's semi having lost two in a row.
Northern Ontario, on the other hand, comes in riding a four-game winning streak.