Friday, February 27, 2009

Playoff preview

Canada came into the tournament with a team goal of reaching the playoffs. They have succeeded, and know that if they can move past USA in the 3-4 game this evening, they have already beaten both Germany and Sweden in round robin play.

Last year's Team Canada were an open hit away from a place in the 1-2 game and a guaranteed medal, and that last game loss proved costly as they were unable to regroup against a USA team that were a surprise play-off contender. USA were riding high and they posted a comfortable 8-1 win over a Team Canada that felt they should have been playing in the 1-2 game.

That was last year, but if you are a Canadian fan there are some worrying parallels this year. Canada could have been in the 1-2 game with a last match win over Norway. USA are on an emotional high, holding to just 4 losses by winning their last two games. "We're coming good at the right time," said USA third Jim Pearce. Skip Goose Perez plays on emotion, and there has been plenty of emotion in the USA camp. "I had a long "come to Jesus" talk with Goose before our last game," said team coach Rusty Scheiber, happy his skip seems to have regained confidence in his draw.

We have seen throughout the event that draws win matches. You can't rely on hitting your way to victory, and if you can't draw, as has been said throughout curling's history, you can't skip.

Canada are likely to have learned a lot from their defeat by USA in the round robin. A spectacular circus shot, a heavyweight hit of a rockpile in the 4 foot with no other option open, won the game for the Americans. It was a shot that many skips might not have seen, let alone attempted, and the skip had drawn his team together before the shot to ask "Do you trust me to make this?"

The team emotion after that shot was a highlight of the week for several of the officials I spoke to at the end of the round robin. "When the Americans all rushed to their skip and hugged him after that shot, well I nearly lost it," said one.

Canada know that if they play to their potential they are unbeatable. This evening they will have to play past a team not afraid to show emotion, on and off the ice. If they make their early shots, if their front end stones don't stay short, if Darryl makes a couple of hits, and Jim makes a couple of early draws, Canada will be favoured to win.

But if they let USA get ahead, that self-doubt may creep back in, the smiles disappear as they have tended to do when they have struggled. Canadians must hope that some early end success will give their team the confidence to carry them past a USA team that learned in the round robin against Canada, sometimes it's as important to be lucky as good.

Germany (7-2) plays Sweden (6-3) in the 1-2 game. When they met in the Draw 6 of the round robin it was a very high scoring game, 12-7 to Sweden who posted a 3, a 4 and a 5. Both teams finished the round robin with losses, though with playoff places assured.

Germany were not impressive when they played Canada, choosing to challenge in a hit game when their skip was struggling to find draw weight into the empty houses. Sweden played well against Canada, without getting any breaks. draws scraped guards and hits missed by fractions. Sweden have impressed me however, though perhaps it has something to do with skip Jalle Jungnell's approach to the game.

"It has to be fun, or why play?" he told me. Jalle played basketball for 25 years so understands competitive pressure. German skip Jens Jaeger has also made a point of being available during the breaks. Hi team has a rooting section that sings and waves flags in the stands after every good shot.

"This game is all about being sociable," said Kate Caithness, WCF vice-President in charge of wheelchair curling. She blamed the coaches for hiding their players out of sight. "It wasn't the intention when we brought wheelchair curling nto the Paralympics that you would never see the players away from the ice."

Perhaps not, but well funded selected teams like Canada take it all very seriously, with their every minute programmed. It may not be a coincidence that Germany and Sweden are both club sides; fierce competitors, but here to enjoy themselves.

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