KINGSTON, Ont. -- She comes into this event as the undisputed skip to beat.
But make no mistake, Jennifer Jones can be beaten.
Where once the Canadian women's curling championship was little more than an annual coronation for the Winnipeg lawyer -- she won four titles in six years, including three in a row from 2008-10 -- Jones comes into this year's event off disappointing finishes in each of the last two years.
In 2011, it was a late-game collapse in the final against Saskatchewan's Amber Holland that cost Jones what would have been her fourth straight national title.
Last year, she squandered a 9-2 round-robin record and a first-place finish with back-to-back playoff losses -- to B.C.'s Kelly Scott in the 1 vs. 2 game and then to eventual champion Heather Nedohin of Alberta in the semifinal -- to go home empty again.
Perhaps not coincidentally, it bears noting that both those disappointing finishes came in the absence of former third Cathy Overton-Clapham, who was fired by Jones after the 2010 season and who was famous at this event for saving her best performances for the playoffs.
No one will ever know if the results in 2011 and 2012 would have been different for Jones if Overton-Clapham had still been on the team instead of current third Kaitlyn Lawes. But if you were making Overton-Clapham's case, you would point out Jones has now won zero Canadian championships without her, after winning four in six years with her.
And you also might point out that Lawes was awful in those two playoff losses last year, shooting just 69 per cent against B.C. and then just 72 per cent in the elimination to Alberta, after leading all thirds during the round robin at 85 per cent.
All of which sets the stage for this year's national Scotties Tournament of Hearts, which begins this afternoon at the 6,700-seat K-Rock Centre.
With the Olympic trials looming this coming December, Jones, Lawes and the rest of their team -- second Jill Officer and lead Dawn Askin -- still need to prove that this foursome as presently configured can win on something other than the cashspiel stage.
"I guess the last two years kind of did get away for us," Jones said Friday following the pre-event skills competition. "But in the same sense, we played well, made the playoffs and we were right in it. We were pretty proud of how we played and hopefully we give ourselves a shot again this week."
They're off to a good start, with both Lawes and Officer advancing to today's quarter-final round of the skills competition.
Lawes knows she didn't play well in last year's two playoff games, but points to razor-sharp performances at the recent Canada Cup and then again in Stonewall at last month's provincials as evidence that she can rise to the big occasion.
"I'm 24, I'm still young," said Lawes. "I'm still learning more about the game and trying to get better all the time. But we're all trying to get better, right?"
Lawes and the rest of Team Manitoba open against P.E.I. this afternoon and then play twice on Sunday, taking on rival Kelly Scott of B.C. in the morning and Newfoundland's Stacie Devereaux in the afternoon.
Here's how I break down the field:
The favourite -- Manitoba's Jennifer Jones (2-1)
Jones is attempting to win her fifth Canadian women's curling championship in her 10th nationals appearance -- which would be an astounding ratio of one title in every two appearances.
While there were concerns about the skip's readiness after taking off most of this season to have a baby and recuperate from knee surgery, those concerns were laid to rest last month in Stonewall in what was perhaps the most dominating performance a Jones team has ever put together at the Manitoba provincials.
Lead Dawn Askin sets the table -- every time, without fail -- like no other lead in the women's game and Officer is still at the very top of her game. No one's better in the big game than Jones, so that leaves third Kaitlyn Lawes as the only question mark.
Simply put, if Lawes is on, this team is going to the worlds next month in Riga, Latvia.
The contenders -- Ontario's Rachel Homan, Canada's Heather Nedohin
Jones will be tested in this field, to be sure. But don't believe the hype about this being an unusually deep field -- it says here the only two teams that are going to possibly deny Jones next weekend are Nedohin and Homan.
Nedohin eliminated Jones on a last-rock extra-end measure in last year's semifinal and then went on to win the whole thing. The skip is an emotional wreck to watch on the ice, but she can throw the big shot with the same unflappability as the much more subdued Jones.
Homan comes into this week off a phenomenal cashspiel season that saw her dominate the early events and win more money to date than any other team in 2012-13, including Jones. Add a home crowd and the extra hype that always gets accorded the Ontario team and they will be the pick of many to win it all this week.
And maybe Homan will win, but they've got to prove it on this stage before I'm a believer. A final weekend collapse in their only Scotties appearance back in 2011 suggests to me the collars get a little tight for this young team when the lights are hottest at week's end.
The veterans -- B.C.'s Kelly Scott and Nova Scotia's Mary-Anne Arsenault (8-1)
Scott -- a Winnipeg native who won a Canadian junior title for Manitoba in 1995 -- was the runner-up to Nedohin at this event last year and was once a dominant force in the women's game, winning back-to-back Canadian titles in 2006 and 2007. They're not quite as imposing these days -- last year's strong Scotties was anomalous, in my opinion -- but they're always dangerous and they seem to rise to a different level whenever they play Jones at this event.
Arsenault is skipping what is basically the former Colleen Jones five-time Canadian champion juggernaut, only Jones is now the vice-skip and throwing second rocks, Arsenault moves from second to skip, Kim Kelly remains at third, while former lead Nancy Delahunt is now the alternate.
Jones has won this event a record six times and will also be further cementing her appearance record, with a 21st trip to the women's nationals. They'll be fun and funny to watch and someone has to finish fourth this week. But just understand this is something more closely approximating a seniors team than a serious contender for a Canadian women's championship.
The pack -- Saskatchewan's Jill Shumay, Alberta's Kristie Moore, P.E.I.'s Suzanne Birt (12-1)
Shumay and Moore both beat serious national contenders to get here, with Shumay outlasting Stefanie Lawton in the Saskatchewan provincials and Moore prevailing in an Alberta field that boasted both 2010 Olympic silver medallist Cheryl Bernard and 2006 Olympic bronze medallist Shannon Kleibrink.
Birt is still probably better known to Canadian curling fans by her maiden name -- Gaudet -- under which she had a dominating career as a junior and also made waves in the women's game, including posting a 10-1 round-robin record in her first Scotties appearance in 2003.
All three are clearly capable of making some waves this week, but it would be a major upset if any of them were still playing next Sunday evening.
The rest -- Quebec's Allison Ross, Newfoundland's Stacie Devereaux, New Brunswick's Andrea Crawford, N.W.T./Yukon's Kerry Galusha (40-1)
Prediction -- Jones has an uncanny knack for manufacturing her own adversity at this event and then overcoming it in spectacular fashion.
But however she gets there this year -- hair on fire, or with robot-like efficiency, as she showed in winning in Stonewall -- I simply cannot come up with a way Manitoba's not playing in next Sunday's final.
And even with the hiccups of the last two years, a record of 4-2 in the national final over the years suggests if Jones gets there, she's twice as likely to win it as to lose it.
Jones 8 Nedohin 6