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Is this champion beatable?

Stoughton could win his 11th men's provincial title in final this afternoon

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Defending champion Jeff Stoughton is one more win away from his 11th provincial men's curling title and second seed Mike McEwen and fifth seed Willie Lyburn will go head to head in the semifinal this morning at the MTS Iceplex to determine who gets the unenviable task of facing him in this afternoon's provincial final.

Stoughton, a 10-time Manitoba men's champion, advanced to today's provincial final with a 9-5 victory over McEwen in Saturday night's Page playoff 1 vs 1 game.

The loss to Stoughton relegated McEwen to this morning's semifinal, where Lyburn will be lying in wait after a thrilling 9-8 victory over Steve Irwin's unheralded Brandon foursome in Saturday night's Page playoff 2 vs. 2 game.

Lyburn trailed Irwin 4-1 after just the second end last night but gamely battled back, cracking a four-ender in the eighth end, then drawing the four-foot with the final rock of the game to squeak out the narrowest of victories.

This will be Lyburn's second appearance in a Manitoba men's semifinal in three years. He played in the 2012 semifinal, losing to eventual champion Rob Fowler.

Lyburn said last night he has no doubt McEwen, widely regarded as skip of the best team in Canada never to win a provincial men's title, will be favoured to win today's semifinal and advance to face Stoughton.

And Lyburn's sure of something else: "We expect to win -- that's what we do," he said. "We put a lot of work in and the guys are playing great."

His victory Saturday night overcame a red-hot Irwin foursome that had already won twice on Saturday just to advance to last night's game, eliminating Randy Neufeld 8-7 in the morning draw and punting Fowler 8-3 in the afternoon.

But a skip who until yesterday was best known as a three-time Manitoba club curling champion simply could not close the deal against Lyburn when it mattered most Saturday night.

"To have control of that game and give up a big one in 8, it's pretty tough," Irwin said.

"But it's been a good week. We had one bad end."

Saturday night's page playoffs were conspicuous by the absence of Fowler, who had a disastrous Saturday.

After going undefeated through his first four games, he was eliminated with back-to-back losses on Saturday, falling 9-4 to McEwen in the morning draw and losing to Irwin in the afternoon draw.

"We just had a real hard time capitalizing on our opportunities. It seemed like for the most part the other team had us under pressure. It was very rare we had the other team under pressure at all," Fowler said.

"Anytime it was setting up good for us, we always seemed to have a half shot or a miss.

"You just can't afford to do that when you start lining up against the best teams in the province. If you make mistakes, they're going to punish you, and that's what happened today...

"It's very disappointing. The guys worked hard, we trained in the summer and put in a lot of time and we definitely practised a lot. But at the end of the day, when you're curling on Saturday in this, you have to execute and we didn't do that.

"So we got what we deserved."

LOOSE HAIRS: The all-stars for the 2014 Safeway Championship, as chosen by the Manitoba Curling Media Association, were skip Steve Irwin, Stoughton third Jon Mead, McEwen second Matt Wozniak and Lyburn lead Tyler Forrest...The 2015 Safeway Championship will be held at Brandon's Keystone Centre...Total attendance through 15 draws at the Iceplex was 4,594.

paul.wiecek@freepress.mb.ca Twitter: @PaulWiecek

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 2, 2014 B5

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