RED DEER, Alta. -- Consider, for a moment, the numbers:
Eight times Jennifer Jones has played at the Canadian Women's Curling Championship.
Eight times, she has advanced to the playoffs. Six times she has played in the final. And four times she has won it all.
That, folks, is clutch performance the likes of which the Canadian women's game has never known before.
And it is why even though Jones is not the defending champion for a change, she is still the heavy favourite as the 2012 Scotties Tournament of Hearts begins this afternoon at the Enmax Centrium.
Every member of her team -- third Kaitlyn Lawes, second Jill Officer and lead Dawn Askin -- were all-stars at their position at last year's event, a history-making performance which was sullied only by a disastrous 10th end in the final that handed the Canadian championship to Saskatchewan's Amber Holland.
The same team will be back over the next eight days and are already making waves. Lawes scored 28 out of a possible 30 points in the preliminary round of the pre-event individual skills competition Friday afternoon in what was one of the highest-scoring performances in women's curling history.
Lawes will be joined by Officer, who scored 23 points, in today's playoff round of the skills competition.
Whatever questions that did exist about the fitness of Officer, who took the entire winter off to have a baby, were answered last month in Portage la Prairie as Jones and company rattled off five consecutive wins over the last two days of the Manitoba provincials en route to a dramatic last-rock victory.
And so it was a confident and reflective Jones who emerged from the ice Friday afternoon, aware better than anyone about what lies ahead.
"I sat down with my parents after the provincials," said Jones, who takes on New Brunswick's Rebecca Atkinson tonight in her lone game today. "And we were talking. And I really just feel grateful, more than anything else, to have had the opportunity to have been involved in all these special moments over the years.
"You've heard me say it before, but I'm serious when I say for me that it's just really all about enjoying the moment at these things. That's what we've always done and we've been fortunate that things have seemed to go our way."
There is every reason to think that things will go Jones's way once again. This is how I break down the field:
The heavy favourite -- Manitoba's Jennifer Jones (3-2)
Take away that disastrous 10th end in the final in Charlottetown last year and Jones would be coming into this event as nothing less than the four-time defending champion.
Lawes, who was in her rookie season with Jones last season, has only gotten stronger and more confident this past winter. Officer looked in Portage like she hadn't missed anything. And Askin now has a diamond engagement ring from fiancee Mike McEwen to go along with all those diamonds she's won by being a three-time champion at this event.
They're rested, confident and look to be much the best in this field.
The challenger -- Alberta's Heather Nedohin (7-2)
Someone else is going to have to challenge Jones, so you might as well go with the home team.
Folks forget that Nedohin actually won a Canadian women's title as third for Cathy King way back in 1998. Thats a long time ago, of course, and there's been a lot of nothing out of Nedohin ever since.
But still, it proves its possible and if ever Nedohin was going to win a second title, the stage would seem to be set here.
The dark horse -- Nova Scotia's Heather Smith-Dacey (6-1)
Dacey reminds me a lot of a previous Nova Scotia champion, Colleen Jones. She's nothing flashy, easy to overlook and has posted a lot of also-ran national performances over the years. All of which is just like Jones -- until the day she finally remembered how to win and went on a historic run of Canadian titles.
A third-place finish at last year's Scotties suggests Smith-Dacey might finally be on the precipice.
The defending champion -- Canada's Amber Holland (8-1)
Holland had a phenomenal week -- and a clutch final -- to win it all in Charlottetown last year.
But the fact Holland comes into this event 23rd on the World Curling Tour money list, despite all the cash-spieling opportunities that go to the defending Canadian champion the winter after their win, suggests that Amber Holland has, well, turned back into Amber Holland.
Someone has to be the fourth team in thhe playoffs next weekend. Might as well be her.
The pack -- Ontario's Tracy Horgan, B.C.'s Kelly Scott, Saskatchewan's Michelle Englot
Horgan beat a very talented Rachel Homan team in the Ontario final, although the accomplishment was tempered by the fact Homan actually beat herself -- missing her final shot of the 10th end to blow a two-point lead and give up a game-winning steal of three to Horgan. Ridiculous.
The diminutive Scott is a former Canadian champion and former Manitoba junior champion, so she definitely knows how to win.
Englot beat cash-spieler Stefanie Lawton in the Saskatchewan final, so she's doing something right. But she's made several appearances at the national Scotties and hasn't won yet. Hard to figure why this time would be any different.
Still waiting -- Newfoundland's Heather Strong, New Brunswick's Rebecca Atkinson, Quebec's Marie-France Larouche
Strong will be playing in her 10th Scotties. One time she played in a tiebreaker game. Any questions?
Atkinson is the dark horse pick among some of my colleagues this week. I dont see it. Kelly finished 3-8 at last year's Scotties and I don't see any reason why things would be appreciably better this year.
Larouche played and lost the Canadian final to Colleen Jones the last time the Scotties was in Red Deer. That appearance remains the highlight of her curling career.
Also-ran -- P.E.I.'s Kim Dolan, Yukon/N.W.T.'s Kerry Galusha
Dolan third is Rebecca-Jean Macdonald (nee McPhee), who is a former Canadian mixed champion and has posted some respectable results at this event previously with a string of different teams. But there's not much to recommend the rest of the squad.
Galusha is the best women's curler the North has to offer -- and that's simply not nearly good enough.
Prediction: If ever Jones is going to do something easy at a national curling event, this would seem to be the time and place.
With an anemic field of either raw rookies or perpetually underachieving retreads (Dolan, Strong, Englot to name just a few), this table is perfectly set for a Jones romp through the round-robin, the 1-2 Page playoff game and the final.
But even if she plays down to just a notch above the level of her competition -- her comfort zone -- it's still hard to see how she doesn't win this thing.
Final: Jones 8 Smith-Dacey 4