Glenn Howard has made the playoffs at the Canadian men’s curling championships for the 13th time in his 14 appearances.
But this road to the final four at the Tim Hortons Brier felt like the hardest one yet for the Ontario skip.
Five extra-end games and ailing Craig Savill at lead has made the 2012 Brier feel like a marathon for Howard, even though his was the first team to nail down a playoff berth.
“This is the longest, hardest grind that we’ve ever done at a Brier,” Howard said Wednesday. “Five extra-end games, I don’t care if you win or lose, those are tough.
“Craig, you’ve got to give him credit. He’s not feeling very well and he’s played awesome since having two games off. We’ve had to work for every single win that we’ve gotten this week.
A 10-5 win over Prince Edward Island on Wednesday was the easiest of the tournament so far for the Howard team. Of their five extra-end games, four were wins.
At 8-1, Ontario secured a top-two finish when the preliminary round concludes Thursday.
Only Kevin Koe of Alberta could catch Ontario at the top of the standings. Ontario and Alberta meet in the final round-robin draw Thursday.
The top four teams advance to the Page playoff at the conclusion of the preliminary round Thursday. Ties for fourth will be solved by tiebreaker games.
Ontario will play in the Page playoff Friday between the top two seeds. The winner advances directly to final Sunday, which is familiar territory for Howard, Savill and second Brent Laing.
They’ve made the final five of the past six years and won the Canadian title in 2007. Third Wayne Middaugh, who skipped Ontario to a Brier win in 1998, joined the team for this season.
The loser Friday drops to a semi-final Saturday to meet the winner of an earlier playoff between the third and fourth seeds.
Alberta was 7-1 with a game remaining against Rob Fowler of Manitoba late Wednesday. Fowler was still in the hunt at 5-3 following a 10-5 victory over Jamie Koe of Yukon and Northwest Territories.
That was the third loss in a row for the Territories, who fell to 5-4. Jamie’s team was soundly beaten 11-3 by older brother Kevin in the morning draw.
“Teams have stepped up their games now that they’re comfortable with the ice,” Jamie observed. “We’re not getting the misses we were getting earlier in the week. We’re not getting those breaks, but that’s no excuse. We still have a chance at fourth place. If we at least come back with a solid performance and don’t win, you can live with that. If you just don’t play well and struggle, then that’s harder to live with.”
Jamie Murphy of Nova Scotia, Jim Cotter of British Columbia and Brad Jacobs of Northern Ontario were all 4-4 with a game to play Wednesday night.
Savill said he’s had fluids replaced intravenously daily since Saturday for about six litres in his estimation. Alternate Scott Howard, Glenn’s son, played in back-to-back games earlier in the tournament and finished the game against Prince Edward Island.
“It feels like it’s food poisoning, but it’s lasted a lot longer than food poisoning,” Savill said. “When I go for the hard sweeps end to end I feel woozy at the end. I’m trying to pick my spots and I’m hoping I don’t have to go end to end on three or four in a row.”
B.C. third Sasha Carter required intravenous treatment at the Canadian women’s curling championship in Red Deer, Alta., last month, because of a similar ailment.
“Sasha was actually talking to my wife and she was the one who suggested: ‘Get Craig on the IV,’” Savill said. “She said it was her magic potion for the Scotties.”
Howard, Savill and Laing will play in the 1-2 playoff game for the fourth time in six years. Savill and Laing also played in it in 2002 when they where John Morris’s front end.
Ontario isn’t the only tournament favourite struck by illness. Alberta third Pat Simmons left midway through the morning game against the Territories.
“I don’t know if it’s the flu,” Kevin Koe said. “He thinks it might be a throat infection. He’s actually a little worse for wear today. He doesn’t seem to be kicking it. We got him out of there and shipped him off to the hotel to hopefully get some rest. He’s not doing well. It’s obvious he’s struggling out there on the ice a bit. If we’re going to win this thing this week, we need him to get healthy.”