Einarson downs Fleury in slugfest

Manitoba rinks expected to be in final battle for spot in semi

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It was the matchup everyone watching the Scotties had been waiting for, though nobody would have guessed it would come when it did. A little sooner than most fans would have expected, with an elimination on the line but not, as betting odds and history both predicted, the ultimate prize: only two Manitoba teams desperate to stay in the fight.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 05/02/2022 (195 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

It was the matchup everyone watching the Scotties had been waiting for, though nobody would have guessed it would come when it did. A little sooner than most fans would have expected, with an elimination on the line but not, as betting odds and history both predicted, the ultimate prize: only two Manitoba teams desperate to stay in the fight.

So yeah, it was a slugfest. And when the dust settled on Saturday afternoon’s 3 vs. 4 playoff game, Kerri Einarson was still in the hunt to defend her two-time Canadian title; but Team Tracey Fleury, so good this week in Thunder Bay and so strong all season — especially against Einarson, who they’d beaten in all five previous matchups this year — was going home.

Still, there wasn’t much euphoria from the Einarson camp after sealing the 11-6 win. They’d bought themselves a ticket into Sunday morning’s semifinal, but no more. The threepeat chance is “still alive,” Einarson acknowledged, speaking to media on a Zoom call after the game; but they weren’t about to let their minds get too far ahead.

Wild Card 1 skip Tracy Fleury watches a rock as Team Canada lead Briane Meilleur (left) and second Shannon Birchard look on Saturday in Thunder Bay, Ont. (Andrew Vaughan / The Canadian Press)

“We’re not really thinking about that,” the skip said. “We’re just taking it one game at a time, and just going out there and embracing being Team Canada.”

Now, Einarson’s team will focus on the next step in trying to pull off their threepeat. To get there, they’ll have to beat New Brunswick’s Andrea Crawford in Sunday morning’s semifinal, which kicks off at 11 a.m. on TSN.

The winner of that match will face Krista McCarville of Northern Ontario in the championship game at 6 p.m.

The winner of Sunday morning’s game between Team Canada and New Brunswick will face Krista McCarville’s Northern Ontario rink for the Scotties Tournament of Hearts title. (Andrew Vaughan / The Canadian Press)

What a wild twist. Going into the Scotties, Fleury was favoured to win it all, with Einarson seeded second; through the round robin, those bets seemed safe. Einarson blazed 8-0 through her pool while Fleury’s team, playing without their skip after she tested positive for COVID-19, lost their first but won the next seven, as vice Selena Njegovan settled into calling the shots.

On Friday, Fleury was back in the hack just in time for the playoffs, and their first loss. They struggled mightly to Thunder Bay hometown star and perennial Scotties contender Krista McCarville; on the next sheet over, Einarson was locked in an upset battle of her own, against New Brunswick’s Andrea Crawford.

Those two losses paved the way for one of the most unforeseen 3 vs. 4 games in recent Scotties memory.

At first, as the rocks roared, Team Fleury looked to be in control. After Einarson blanked the first, Fleury and her East St. Paul team of Njegovan, second Liz Fyfe and lead Kristin MacCuish held Einarson to a lonely single in the second. For the third end, they capitalized on an Einarson miss to craft a resounding three-spot, and take an early 3-1 lead.

But Einarson, third Val Sweeting, second Shannon Birchard and lead Briane Meilleur didn’t get rattled.

“We knew it was still early that we could come back with a deuce, and possibly three,” Einarson said. “Which we did, and we got ourselves back in the game. We put a lot of pressure on them.”

They struck back with a three-ender of their own in the fourth, thanks to a key double by Einarson and what Sweeting called an “uncharacteristic” Fleury miss. That end seemed to send a resounding message: whatever happened, the Gimli-based rink was going to keep swinging.

“It kind of came out of nowhere, but that’s the key in this field,” Sweeting said. “If you get an opportunity like that, you have to take it, and Kerri made no mistake. We just kind of plugged away, got a break when we needed it and yeah, we’ll carry that forward.”

Fleury hit back with a deuce in the fifth, but then came the killer. After the break, Team Canada pounced, nailing all eight of their shots and capitalizing on some Team Fleury misses to seal a four-ender and leap into an 8-5 lead. That was the turning point, Einarson agreed later: they stole a deuce in the seventh, traded a couple of singles, and then it was over.

In the end, the game story could be read loud and clear by the numbers. Einarson shot 81 per cent, while Sweeting shot 83. On the other side of the sheet, Fleury finished at 69 per cent, with Njegovan at 68. Einarson’s back end was locked-in when they had to be, while Fleury’s faltered when they could least afford to miss.

That’s basically how the losing skip saw it, too.

“I think I just had a couple of key misses at the wrong time, and I think Team Canada capitalized, and they made a lot of shots,” Fleury said.

So Einarson will forge ahead to Sunday’s semifinal, while Fleury’s team will regroup to practise for the two remaining grand slams on the calendar: “If they run,” Njegovan said, with a laugh. “Fingers crossed.” But the story written about their season will be bittersweet: they were usually the best team on the ice, except at the exact moments they most needed to be.

At the Olympic trials final in November, they had a shot to win against Jennifer Jones, and missed. At the Manitoba Scotties a couple weeks later, they just weren’t themselves, and didn’t even make the playoffs. (The buffalo jacket was ultimately won by rising phenom Mackenzie Zacharias.) Now, in Thunder Bay as a wild card and favoured winner, they faltered.

Sometimes, even they’ve wondered what’s going on: “The curling gods have not been nice to us lately,” Njegovan said.

In the evening, McCarville survived an absolute thriller in the 1 vs. 2 battle, stealing the decisive point in an extra end when Crawford’s big-weight attempt at a flat double-takeout overcurled, slicing just one opposition stone away.

Only about 400 Fans inside Fort William Gardens, capped because of health restrictions, let out a mighty roar in celebration of the home-town team’s 9-8 triumph.

McCarville was in a hole after seven ends, down 7-3, but cracked a three in eight, yielded only a single in the ninth and then scored a game-tying deuce in a wild 10th with every rock in play.

melissa.martin@freepress.mb.ca

Melissa Martin

Melissa Martin
Reporter-at-large

Melissa Martin reports and opines for the Winnipeg Free Press.

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