EDMONTON -- The 2013 Tim Hortons Brier is just two days old, but already Jeff Stoughton has the heaviest lifting behind him -- at least until the playoffs begin next Saturday.
Although an 8-5 loss Sunday night to defending world champion Glenn Howard of Ontario was neither particularly elegant or the desired result, Stoughton still comes into this morning with a 2-1 record and both Howard and hometown favourite Kevin Martin of Alberta now in his rear-view mirror after a tough opening weekend that saw Stoughton take on both his principal rivals and two of the pre-event favourites.
"Nothing wrong with that," Stoughton said of his weekend record. "We knew it was going to be a battle the whole week."
A 5-4 extra end win over Alberta on Saturday night -- in which Stoughton stole the win after Martin claimed his rock "picked" up some debris -- was followed in succession by a 9-4 win over Nova Scotia's Paul Flemming Sunday morning, setting the stage for a battle of unbeaten teams between Manitoba and Ontario at night.
But in a game that could have big implications for the playoff seedings next weekend, Stoughton was never able to generate much in the way of offence and the Ontario foursome were simply the better team on a night that saw both Stoughton and Manitoba second Reid Carruthers get badly outshot by their counterparts -- Stoughton 89-76 by Howard and Carruthers 88-79 by Brent Laing.
A fourth-end steal by Howard gave Ontario a 3-1 lead, but it also seemed to shift the momentum of the game as Howard and company took control and were never really threatened again.
"It was a little frustrating -- just missed too many last shots," said Stoughton. "We still had chances after (the steal) and I just didn't finish them off. You know, it's going to happen, so we'll regroup and have a good game (today)."
Howard said he liked the way his team played against Manitoba, but also felt fortunate. "I really liked the way we played that game. We were really solid and we got Jeff on a bit of an off day, which is good. Kind of nice for us."
Earlier Sunday, Stoughton was clinging to a 5-4 lead after yielding a steal of two to Nova Scotia in the seventh end, but shut the door for good with a four-ender in the eighth that prompted Nova Scotia to shake hands.
Stoughton plays just one game today, but it will not be a walk-over. This afternoon, Manitoba plays against a Quebec foursome that is unbeaten at 3-0 and which also beat Martin on Sunday morning. Quebec skip Jean-Michel Menard -- the 2006 Brier champion -- has had a hot early hand, shooting 89 per cent through three games -- second only to Newfoundland's Brad Gushue, who shot 90 per cent through his first three games and is 4-0 heading into today.
Meanwhile, after losing his first two games, Martin's Alberta foursome finally got on track last night with an emphatic 10-3 win over a B.C. team that is winless at 0-3 and who have looked overmatched in all their games.
"We played decent and got everything going and we actually made the other team shoot -- and we hadn't done that yet," said Martin. "Thank goodness."
The only other undefeated team is Northern Ontario's Brad Jacobs, who is 3-0 coming into today but has benefitted from a soft early schedule that saw his team open with games against NWT, B.C. and PEI.