KILLARNEY, Man. — Even the frigid air felt thicker here, on the penultimate day of the Manitoba Scotties round robin. Shamrock Centre hummed with life, crammed with fans and television crews lugging crates of gear in from the cold.
They’re setting up for the finale, for Sunday’s televised semifinal and championship game. And though there are still plenty of rocks to play before then — two round-robin draws today, plus the Page games — one thing is certain.
Kerri Einarson will play on Sunday. She hungers to reclaim her buffalo jacket; now, she could be just two wins away.
On Friday evening, the East St. Paul team of Einarson, third Selena Kaatz, second Liz Fyfe and lead Kristin MacCuish became the first team to clinch a playoff spot, locking up their spot in the prized 1-vs-1 Page game.
To get there took a win and a helper, from the next sheet over. Einarson (6-0) polished her unbeaten record with a win over Darcy Robertson (5-1); when Barb Spencer (4-2) lost to Jenn Clark-Rouire, Einarson had won the pool.
She knew it, too, as soon as she let her last rock against Robertson fly down the sheet.
"After I threw that last rock, I just got goosebumps," Einarson said moments after the win. "It’s super exciting. That game went really well. We had one end where it wasn’t so great, but there’s always ends like that."
So much was riding on that rock. For Einarson, the 2016 Manitoba champion, it meant a triumphant provincial return, after a crushing tiebreaker heartbreak last year. (Not that it rankles: "We forgot about that," she said, with a laugh.)
It also meant that Einarson’s team could rest easy going into today’s final stretch.
Still, they have no plans to let up against Spencer, their final round-robin opponent. Spencer must beat Einarson today — and hope for a Robertson loss — to have a playoff shot; as for Einarson, well, she just wants to win.
"I definitely want to come out, and give my best," Einarson said. "I wouldn’t mind going undefeated through this. So maybe we’ll regroup a little bit, get some rest, and come out tomorrow and play like we can."
It’s been a brilliant week for Einarson’s crew. They slogged through a handful of sloppy ends, but were never really pushed to the limit; for the most part, they’ve controlled the play; through six, they had yet to finish a whole 10 ends.
That’s an affirmation of sorts for the team, now in their fifth year together. They had soared in 2016, all the way to their first buffalo jacket. But they struggled in the following season, never quite stringing enough wins together.
So what changed over the last year, to return them to their sharpshooting ways?
"We were just all quite uptight," Einarson said, of 2016-17. "We were just trying way too hard to have a season like we did the previous. And when you try too hard it doesn’t end up, so you’ve just got to let it flow and be yourselves."
What was still uncertain, after Friday, is whether Jennifer Jones or Joelle Brown will face Einarson in the 1-vs-1.
Brown has the edge: the seasoned Charleswood skip will win their pool if she beats Alyssa Calvert this afternoon. She inched closer to that first-place finish with a win over Dauphin’s Lisa Hale-Menard on Friday night.
But Jones is close behind her, having crushed fourth-seed Shannon Birchard on Friday night. Birchard offered a handshake at 10-0 after four ends, until she remembered that tournament rules required five. The final score: 12-0.
That’s hardly reflective of Birchard’s talent; she’s a rising star and 2016 semifinalist, who has beaten Jones on several occasions. Even Jones can’t remember seeing a score that lopsided, this late in a provincial round robin.
"I felt bad for them, nothing they did would work," Jones said. "We’ll take a win, and a nice short game. We’ve had quite a bit of curling lately... and I feel like we’re playing better, we started off a little bit slow."
Every team here in Killarney shares one dream: to wear a buffalo jacket into the national Scotties.
That said, a new format at nationals — it’s now a 16-team field — means that for at least one of the top teams at these provincials, there will be a second chance to make the 2018 Scotties Tournament of Hearts in Penticton, B.C.
Here’s how it works. From now on, the two highest-ranked Canadian teams that didn’t win a Scotties berth (either through provincial playdowns, or as Team Canada) will head to a play-in wild-card game, to clinch the final spot.
As it stands now, Jennifer Jones sits atop the Canadian team rankings. Chelsea Carey, who is battling to win Alberta this weekend, is second. Dynamo Rachel Homan is third, but she’s headed to the Olympics, and Einarson sits fourth.
That means that in any given scenario, at least one of Jones or Einarson will make the wild-card game — or both.
For instance, if Jones wins Manitoba, Einarson would face Carey (if the latter fails to win Alberta) or a lower-ranked team (likely fifth-place Kelsey Rocque) in the wild card. Likewise, if Einarson wins the buffalo, Jones will go.
If neither win Manitoba, and Carey claims Alberta, both Jones and Einarson would get their second chance.
That said, Team Jones would much rather get there the old-fashioned way.
"It’s only one game," second Jill Officer said on Friday. "You’re going to go all the way to Penticton, and maybe only play one game, and turn around and come home? I’d rather just win this, and know that we’re staying for the week.
"At the same time, if we don’t win this, I’ll take the fallback."
So prepare Penticton, for the Manitoban invasion: alongside 2017 buffalo gal Michelle Englot taking Homan’s place as Team Canada, this week’s playdown winner, there could potentially be three Manitoba-based teams in the mix.