DAUPHIN -- There will be a new Manitoba men's curling champion in 2012 -- and Winnipeg's Mike McEwen has the inside track on the vacated title heading into the final day.
Defending Manitoba, Canadian and world champion Jeff Stoughton -- who had won the last three Manitoba men's championships and five of the last six -- was dethroned at the Safeway Manitoba Men's Curling Championship Saturday night, losing the Page playoff 2 vs. 2 game 8-7 to Brandon's Rob Fowler at Credit Union Place.
And the man now in the driver's seat to replace Stoughton is his principal rival in Manitoba the past three seasons, Winnipeg's McEwen.
McEwen is now 6-0 and just one more victory away from what would be his first Manitoba men's championship. A 7-5 win over Deer Lodge's Willie Lyburn Saturday night advanced McEwen's team directly to what will be their third straight Manitoba men's final (1:30 p.m., Shaw TV).
McEwen will play the winner of this morning's semifinal between Lyburn and Fowler (9 a.m., Shaw TV).
His back to the wall on Saturday after sustaining his first loss of this event Friday night, Stoughton rattled off wins over former Brier champion Vic Peters Saturday morning and then two-time Manitoba champion Dave Elias Saturday afternoon to stay alive and advance to face Fowler, who beat Sean Grassie and Terry McNamee earlier Saturday to advance his own team.
But in the end, Stoughton, by his own admission, simply never found the form that made him a nine-time Manitoba champion.
"It's disappointing just because we didn't play that well. I think that's the toughest thing to take," said Stoughton. "We didn't play good enough to win and we got what we deserved...
"Who knows what it was? We never got comfortable on this ice, which is unusual for us because usually we catch on to these things pretty easily. It was a struggle the whole time as you guys probably saw. Even the couple games we won easily, it wasn't very pretty out there. It finally caught up to us in this last game and Robbie's team played very well."
And, in particular, so did Robbie. With the game tied 7-7 in the 10th end and two Stoughton guards on the centre-line, Fowler played a perfect draw with his first stone to bury a counter on the top of the button and leave Stoughton nothing with his final rock of the game except an impossibly difficult double runback takeout attempt.
"When you make the decision to start skipping," said Fowler, a former second for Stoughton on three of his Manitoba champions, "those are the shots you have to make in the clutch... It's an emotional high, we're not going to lie. But we have to control those emotions and come back and be just as good tomorrow."
The same goes for McEwen, who appeared to score twin victories on Saturday night, advancing his own team to the final, while seeing Stoughton -- the man who beat him in both of the last two finals -- vanquished.
But instead of expressing relief at having the defending world champion chased from the bonspiel, McEwen instead took a swipe at the way the Stoughton team had been playing.
"I've been kind of watching them the last few playoff games and, you know, they weren't up to snuff," said McEwen.
"And Willie Lyburn and Rob Fowler are playing really well. So at this point, it didn't matter who were playing in the final, they were going to be good regardless of who they were playing."
But don't you think it is at least a small advantage that the nine-time Manitoba champion and the man who's beaten you in each of the last two finals has been bounced?
"Yes and no," McEwen replied. "Obviously he's the most comfortable in the final. I would say though -- I hate to say it -- but there's a bit of pressure on us. We are the favourite (now) to come through. So it's a catch-22. Sometimes it's good being the underdog in the final."
McEwen defeated Elias Saturday morning, while Lyburn defeated McNamee to advance their teams to Saturday night's 1 vs. 1 game. While McEwen's foursome, by the skip's own admission, did not play their best Saturday night, it was good enough to defeat a Lyburn squad that quickly fell behind 3-0 and never seriously threatened, even after tying the game 3-3 heading into the fifth-end break.
Lyburn's older brother Allan is the third on Fowler's squad and the younger Lyburn was asked about facing his brother in the semifinal.
"Unfortunately it's an elimination game (Sunday)," said Willie Lyburn, "but I don't look at it that way. We're just playing another team."