SAULT STE. MARIE, Ont. -- The Scotties Tournament of Hearts playoff battlefield could be heavily occupied by Manitobans if things go right today in the Soo.
Two-time defending champion Team Canada, skipped by Jennifer Jones, and Manitoba's Jill Thurston have positioned themselves for a shot at the four-team Page playoffs of the national women's curling championship.
Both teams have 6-3 records, the same mark as Ontario, and trail only Kathy O'Rourke of Prince Edward Island, which leads the 12-team field at 7-2.
One victory apiece today should be enough to qualify Jones and Thurston for tiebreakers at the very least, while two-game sweeps would guarantee them playoff spots.
Canada plays struggling Nova Scotia (1-8) this afternoon, then meets Kathy McCarville of Ontario tonight.
Manitoba plays Andrea Kelly of New Brunswick (4-5) this afternoon and Quebec (4-5) on the late draw.
Thurston, 38, making her third Scotties appearance but first as a skip, swept both her games Wednesday and has now won three straight. She said the possibility of a pair of Winnipeg teams cracking the playoffs is exciting.
"That'd be great. That hasn't happened for quite some time," Thurston said. "Jen's kind of been battling in the trenches by herself for awhile, so it would be very neat... especially Jen and I skipping our own teams. I think that would be kind of a neat fun fact."
Jones and Thurston are former junior teammates, winning the Manitoba title in 1991.
The last time two Manitoba teams made the Scotties playoffs was 1996 in Thunder Bay when Winnipeg's Connie Laliberte wore Canadian colours while Maureen Bonar's Brandon team represented the province.
On Wednesday, Jones, third Cathy Overton-Clapham, second Jill Officer and lead Dawn Askin from Winnipeg's St. Vital Club easily beat Quebec 9-4 in the morning draw, but sagged in the evening. Leading 5-3 playing the eighth end, Canada surrendered three consecutive deuces to O'Rourke's young P.E.I. team for a 9-5 loss.
Jones was clearly irritated afterwards.
"We just had a bad finish to the game and it's not characteristic of us," Jones said. "It was a bad ninth end. I wish we could play it over again but we can't, so we have to come out sharper (today).
"You don't like to lose games like that. We're two up playing eight and just didn't play well to end the game."
Thurston, meanwhile, silenced the Essar Centre crowd with a resounding 10-5 win over Ontario in the morning, then followed up with a tidy 8-6 decision over Sharon Cormier's surprisingly impressive Northwest Territories/Yukon team.
"Those were two big games we had to win, so now with some people falling back, we're in control of our own destiny," said Thurston, who is joined on the team by a trio of Scotties rookies -- third Kristen Phillips, second Leslie Wilson and lead Raunora Westcott.
"They've handled it really well. It's not easy being at your first Scott. It's not easy being at any Scott. And the ice is a little bit tricky, but they've done a great job of handling all the pressure."
O'Rourke, meanwhile, was downright giddy after knocking off Canada to grab sole possession of first place.
"Pretty terrific... we came out really, really strong against Quebec and tried to carry that through with Team Canada and I guess we did do that," she said. When told she is guaranteed a tiebreaker, O'Rourke said: "That'll make us sleep good tonight."
Ontario had a dreadful day Wednesday, losing twice.
Following the mess against Manitoba, the Thunder Bay team played just as poorly in a 7-5 loss to Cormier.
Still with playoff hopes are Saskatchewan and British Columbia.
Amber Holland, the pride of the town of Kronau, Sask., kept her playoff hopes alive with a couple of victories to move to 5-4.
Holland was the beneficiary of an uncharacteristic flash by B.C.'s Kelly Scott in the 10th end to steal a point and a 6-5 win in the morning draw. In the afternoon, Saskatchewan defeated Nancy McConnery of Nova Scotia 5-2.
Scott rebounded to nip Nova Scotia 8-7 in an extra end Wednesday night.
Alberta's Valerie Sweeting, at one time cruising at 3-1, has lost five straight and is out of the playoff picture.
CURLING'S FIRST OLYMPIC GOLD / C2
P.E.I. (O'Rourke) 7 2
Canada (J.Jones) 6 3
Manitoba (Thurston) 6 3
Ontario (McCarville) 6 3
Saskatchewan (Holland) 5 4
B.C. (K.Scott) 5 4
Quebec (Belisle) 4 5
N.L. (Nichols) 4 5
New Brunswick (Kelly) 4 5
Alberta (Sweeting) 3 6
Territories (S.Cormier) 3 6
N.Scotia (McConnery) 1 8