NEEPAWA -- Jeff Stoughton is making it all look easy.
The nine-time Manitoba men's champion has dominated Manitoba curling for the past two decades like no other -- and he's doing exactly the same thing in microcosm this week at the Manitoba men's curling championship.
With two more victories here on Friday -- 9-5 over Dave Elias Friday morning to qualify for the playoff round and then 9-2 over Steen Sigurdson in the opening round of the playoffs last night -- Stoughton improved to a perfect 4-0 and has now outscored his opponents in Neepawa by a combinied score of 36-11.
Consider: Stoughton has scored 9 points in each of his four victories this week -- he's won 9-2 three times and 9-5 once; and he's yet to even play a 10-end game -- his opponents have quit after six ends once, seven ends twice, and nine ends once.
Put it altogether, and it's become crystal clear this week why Stoughton's opponents annointed him the No.1 seed coming into this event.
But there was no telling any of that to Stoughton here on Friday. Instead of taking a bow, it was a frustrated Stoughton who emerged from the ice after both his games, complaining about too many misses by his team and a failure by himself to adjust to what he said were changed ice conditions on Friday.
"It was a pretty ugly game. We didn't play that well," Stoughton said after the win over Sigurdson, in which his team scored two in the first end, stole two in the second end and then stole another one in the third end to jump out to a 5-0 lead.
If that kind of complete domination doesn't constitute playing well in Stoughton's books, it will be interesting to see what it looks like this weekend if he ever does find a level of play that satisfies him.
His opponent this morning -- reigning Manitoba mixed champion Terry McNamee -- thinks he has a pretty good idea of what it looks like already.
"We're playing well," McNamee said after an 8-2 throttling of Scott Ramsay last night, "but against Jeff, you have got to shoot 90-95 per cent to win. And if we can do that (today), we'll be in a position to win."
Whoever wins today's McNamee-Stoughton game advances directly to the 1 vs 1 game tonight, where the winner advances straight to Sunday's final -- a game Stoughton has won nine times in 10 tries over the years.
Mike McEwen was the team voted prior to this event as the team most likely to face Stoughton in Sunday's final, but the hard-luck McEwen is going to have to do it the hard way now after a poorly played 9-4 loss to defending champion Rob Fowler Friday.
Leading Fowler by a score of 4-1, McEwen promptly gave up a three-ender, a steal of three and then a steal of two more in three successive ends. He then quit after just seven ends, down 9-4.
McEwen left little doubt after the game who he thought was to blame for the unravelling. "I didn't get much help in the middle ends,"said McEwen, "so there's not much I can do."
With the loss, McEwen now has a staggering task in front of him -- he will have to win five games in a row here this weekend if he's going to accomplish what he never has before -- win a provincial championship.
That path begins this morning when McEwen takes on Dennis Bohn, who dropped to the B-side of the playoff round with a 7-5 loss to Sean Grassie Friday night.
In today's other sudden-death B-side game, Ramsay takes on Sigurdson.
Fowler, meantime, is in great shape as he attempts to defend the championship he won last year. After qualifying for the playoffs through the B-side Friday, Fowler is in the driver's seat heading into today thanks to the win over McEwen.
Fowler will play Grassie in this morning's other A-side qualifying game, with that same berth into the 1 vs 1 game that McNamee and Stoughton are chasing.
"We all believe in each other and even though we weren't curling nearly as good as we can, we really worked hard to keep each other upbeat," said Fowler. "And it paid off."
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