The contrast was hard to miss.
On every other sheet on Friday afternoon, the games played out the way they were expected, with Manitoba, Ontario and Saskatchewan all edging out teams well below them in the standings at the Scotties Tournament of Hearts.
But, curiously, over on Sheet D on the far side, Heather Nedohin’s Team Canada rink was locked in a heated, hair-pulling battle with a Northwest Territories team that had won just once all week.
This after Nedohin had a 6-2 lead after four ends, seemingly putting her safely in position to play Ontario’s Rachel Homan later in the night for a spot in the next day’s pivotal No. 1 versus No. 2 game.
Instead, the defending champs began to implode, a collapse that ended with them conceding a two-point steal in a stunning 10-8 loss.
By that point, the game few in the K-Rock Centre had come to see was on centre stage, with the crowd wholeheartedly embracing Kerry Galusha’s underdog group from Yellowknife in their unexpected moment in the sun.
Nedohin, curling just 63 per cent in the contest, was left visibly shaken after what was Canada’s third loss in their last four games.
“I think it’s a really high calibre event and there’s no teams anywhere where you can say ‘oh that’s a for sure win,’ ” she said diplomatically afterward, her voice hoarse from a long couple days of bellowing at rocks that weren’t obeying more often than not.
“We’re a team that rebounds very well. You’ve got to handle some hiccups – I guess you could say – along the way.”
What remains to be seen is if the Edmonton quartet’s issues are actually mere hiccups or something a little more fatal.
By virtue of their 6-0 start to the tournament, Nedohin and Co. had already guaranteed they would be playing games on Saturday before Friday’s ugly result, but the loss to the Territories means their road to repeating as champs will be much more difficult.
Unlike a year ago, when Nedohin’s rink got hot en route to winning eight of their final nine draws as part of a Cinderella story that ended with her first Scotties title in 14 years, they appear to be backing into the event’s biggest games.
Making matters worse, the other playoff-bound teams are all playing extremely well.
Manitoba’s Jennifer Jones (11-0) has been particularly dominant, becoming the first woman to go unbeaten through the round robin since British Columbia’s Linda Moore went 10-0 back in 1985.
“I think we bring out the best in each other,” Jones said of her team. “We were just really consistent all week.”
Homan (10-1) and B.C.’s Kelly Scott (8-3) – the fourth and final qualifier after a win over Quebec on Friday night – haven’t been slouches either, with the young Ontario skip’s only blemish all week a close loss to Jones and Scott's decorated team rallying from a slow start to win their last five in a row.
With Jones and Homan now set to play on Saturday for the coveted bye to the final, Nedohin’s suddenly reeling foursome (7-4) will have to beat Scott and then the loser of the one-two game to have a chance to defend their title.
One more “hiccup” and they will be going home empty-handed.
“Anything can happen from here,” Nedohin said. “Honestly the standings get erased, and it’s welcome to the playoffs.”
There’s something to be said for betting on the hot hand, however. After Jones finished off a tougher than expected 7-6 win over New Brunswick in the afternoon – her 100th victory at the tournament – the four-time winner noted that momentum really does seem to matter in these events.
“You don’t need to go through undefeated,” Jones said. “But if you have momentum, it’s really what sports are all about: getting on a bit of a roll. Right now we are.”
That’s partly why Team Canada is already being written off by some here in Kingston, something those close to Nedohin argued Friday would be a mistake.
Her second, Jessica Mair, for one, explained how she idolizes Nedohin’s passion and drive to win, qualities which were key reasons Mair – then an elite curler at the university level – decided to join the veteran in 2009 despite the team’s long absence from the national championship.
“We are a team that sticks together, even if one player is not playing that great,” Mair said. “We battle as a unit and we come back every time.
“I think this loss is going to put a fire in her belly. We’re going to come out fighting.”