They were four of the top five seeds coming into the 2014 Safeway Manitoba men's curling championship.
And after three days and four games, they're all exactly where they were expected to be coming into this morning -- undefeated.
Defending champion Jeff Stoughton, second seed Mike McEwen, third seed Rob Fowler and fifth seed Willie Lyburn all improved to 4-0 Friday night with victories in the opening draw of the playoff round at the MTS Iceplex.
Stoughton defeated Randy Neufeld 8-6; McEwen defeated Richard Muntain 10-4; Fowler defeated Steen Sigurdson 6-4; and Lyburn defeated Steve Irwin 6-4.
And so with that, a competition that nominally began with 32 teams way back on Wednesday can finally really begin in earnest at 9 a.m. this morning when the big guns finally face each other for the first time this week. Stoughton will play Lyburn, while McEwen will play Fowler, with the two winners advancing to tonight's Page playoff 1 vs. 2 game, where the winner will in turn advance straight to Sunday afternoon's provincial final.
As for the rest of the remaining playoff field, well, they will play on the B side of the playoff draw and attempt to become one of the teams to qualify for tonight's 3 vs. 4 Page playoff game, where the winner advances to Sunday morning's semifinal, while the loser is eliminated.
And so it goes for a curler like Muntain, a 46-year-old electrical inspector who is playing on the final weekend of a provincial men's championship for the first time -- and with the full knowledge of just how badly the deck is stacked against him if he's going to knock off much more experienced opponents like McEwen or Stoughton or Fowler or Lyburn.
"It's tough. Those guys -- Mike and Jeff -- are a step above us all because they're out playing on this (arena) ice all the time," said Muntain, whose $8,000 in team tour winnings this winter are about one-tenth of what Stoughton won in a single weekend at the TSN Skins Game earlier this month.
Sigurdson is making his second consecutive playoff appearance at this event and was hopeful heading into Friday night that last year's hard experience -- in which his team was eliminated in consecutive playoff games -- will provide some valuable lessons to build upon this year.
"It's a little bit less nerve-wracking this year than our first time here," said Sigurdson, who gave Fowler all he could handle last night. "It helps a lot. It just doesn't seem to be as much pressure anymore because we've done it before."
Still, Sigurdson is realistic about his team's chances of winning it all this weekend. "The stars would really have to align," said Sigurdson, a 24-year-old credit union worker, "but maybe?"
Hope springs eternal in curling, of course. But there's a reason why Stoughton has won six of the last eight provincials, Fowler won one of the two Stoughton didn't, McEwen played in three finals from 2010-12 and Lyburn was a semifinalist in 2012.
And it's because unlike teams such as Muntain and Sigurdson, those four teams are curling almost every weekend on the World Curling Tour against some of the best competition in the world.
Indeed, it's revealing that the only team among the top 5 seeds not still standing this morning is Sean Grassie, who also just happens to be the only skip among the top 5 who does not curl on the World Curling Tour every weekend.
Anointed the fourth seed this year on the strength of his surprising appearance in last year's final, Grassie reverted to form at this year's event, losing his first game and then limping through the B side until he was eliminated yesterday afternoon by Trevor Loreth.
"It's pretty disappointing to go out this early," said Grassie.
It's also a big club.
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