Defending champion Jeff Stoughton has played the grand total of 10 ends -- the mandatory minimum -- in two games and outscored his first two opponents by a combined score of 14-2.
Second-seeded Mike McEwen has been just as dominating, dispatching his first two opponents by a combined score of 20-6.
Throw in a pair of comfortable victories for third seed Rob Fowler and the portrait that emerges from the first two days of competition at the Safeway Manitoba men's curling championship at MTS Iceplex suggests there are three very talented, very competitive teams that can win this thing -- and then 29 others.
And so it goes at a 32-team provincial men's curling championship that looks increasingly bloated with each passing year as the competitive gap between curling's top teams and everyone else continues to widen.
The past eight Manitoba men's championships have been won by just three elite skips -- Stoughton, Fowler and Kerry Burtnyk -- and it is all but impossible to argue any longer the charm of this event remains its quaint democracy and the idea even a team of club curlers can get hot for a week and win a trip to the Brier.
Randy Dutiaume's 2005 outfit was the last team resembling that description to actually win a Manitoba title and there's no reason to think that drought will end this year based on the lopsided play at the Iceplex thus far this week.
So, what to do? Stoughton, who has benefitted more than anyone as a record 10-time champion in the 32-team era, said the biggest problem as he sees it is the large number of teams at the provincials necessitates a double- knockout format, which in turn doesn't give less-experienced teams a fair chance to get accustomed to the kind of arena ice conditions the top teams know so well.
But, said Stoughton, an eight- or 10-team round-robin akin to the format used in the men's provincials in Alberta and Ontario would solve that problem.
"The biggest thing about having 10 teams and playing a round robin is it gives these guys who haven't played on this arena ice nine or 10 games on it. And they might get better and more comfortable at it," said Stoughton. "It's tough when guys come here, go two-and-out and they really don't learn a thing."
Stoughton was asked if this week's lopsided scores are suggestive of the need for a change.
"It could," he said. "I think there's always the chance for an upset, but it's becoming less and less with the top teams. We'd be happy playing an eight- or nine-game round robin. Or this -- it's obviously worked for us.
"So either way is fine, but to help the teams that struggle on this ice, it might be better to get eight or nine games instead of just two."
While he's succeeded with the existing format, Stoughton says lopsided games like he's been having this week also do his team a disservice.
"We're not playing enough to get going -- we've played 10 ends in two games. We don't have a great feel for the ice yet, we're missing some shots. We're just getting fortunate right now."
McEwen laughed when he was asked if this week's event is beginning to feel like there's just a couple teams that can win -- and then everyone else.
"There's been greater folk then me that made the mistake of saying something like that," said McEwen, referencing the time Stoughton got himself in trouble for proclaiming a handful of Winnipeg teams were the only ones with a chance to win the provincials.
"And I wouldn't say that entirely. There's going to be a couple -- two or three -- teams that make some noise at the end of the week. Should Jeff and I make a playoff run, they'll keep us very honest. And if we don't play to our capabilities, then we're definitely beatable."
With consecutive victories during the first two days, Stoughton, McEwen and Fowler are now just one more win away from advancing to the eight-team playoff round, which begins tonight.
Stoughton will play Brandon's Steve Irwin in one of four A-side qualifying games this morning, while McEwen will play Heather's Steen Sigurdson and Fowler will play Granite's Richard Daneault. The fourth A-side qualifier will see Pembina's Randy Neufeld play against Fort Rouge's Willie Lyburn, the 2012 semifinalist.
The Fowler-Daneault matchup has an interesting subplot. Daneault was the second on the Fowler team that won the 2012 Manitoba men's championship, but he was subsequently dismissed from the squad after a disappointing 2013 season.
Meanwhile, Deer Lodge's Sean Grassie -- the 2013 runner-up to Stoughton -- has now won two in a row since losing his opener Wednesday. After eliminating 2002 Manitoba champion Mark Lukowich 8-3 Thursday morning, Grassie sent Carberry's Bill Kuran packing 7-3 Thursday evening, leaving Grassie needing to win twice more today to advance to tonight's playoffs.
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