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Brad Jacobs scratched his neck and rubbed his face with his hands in a gesture of sheer relief as he slid across the ice to celebrate with his Canada teammates.
The gold-medal favourites in men’s Olympic curling stayed on course for the semifinals on Saturday.
But only just.
In another thrilling finish at the Ice Cube Curling Center, Canada stole a point in the final end to beat Britain 7-5 and avoid dropping back into trouble in the standings.
“Relief,” Jacobs, from Sault Ste. Marie, Ont., said. “Complete and total relief. We got lucky ... That was the most nervous feeling this week.”
China and Sweden earned far more convincing wins to move into a two-way tie for the lead at 6-1 and guarantee at least a tiebreaker for a spot in the playoffs.
The Chinese silenced the home crowd early in a 9-6 victory over Russia to maintain their sparkling form this week and Sweden needed only nine ends to beat Germany 8-4.
The joint-leaders are one more victory away from definitely being in the semifinals. Both Britain and Canada are 5-2.
Only Norway (3-3), which didn’t play Saturday, realistically can stop the current top four from advancing. The Norwegians play Britain in Sunday’s morning session and could be knocked out of contention with a loss.
Players and coaches from rival teams stayed on to watch the riveting end to the Canada-Britain game, highlighting how crucial it was in the context of the tournament. Even players from the Canadian ice hockey team were at the Ice Cube Curling Center for the game.
By opening with two losses in their first three games, the Canadians have been under pressure all week and they again failed to produce their best form. Jacobs was uncharacteristically sloppy, by his very high standards, and shouted “that shouldn’t have happened!” when he failed to hold the shooter for two points in the ninth end.
That meant Britain was one point behind and throwing the last stone in the 10th, which proved to be a messy one. Britain skip David Murdoch went for a double takeout with his final shot that would have picked up two points and won the game.
His rock struck the first Canadian stone just at the wrong angle. When they all came to rest, Canada had the winning stone by the narrowest of margins.
“If it had just curled that one millimeter more,” Murdoch said, without finishing that sentence. “It was pretty heart-breaking.”
Most of the key games have been coming down to the final stone in the men’s tournament, which has been thrown open because of the Canadians’ sluggish form. They came to Sochi as the overwhelming favourites after sweeping through their national trials unbeaten, an unprecedented feat in a country where curling is the No. 2 winter sport behind hockey.
“This is curling, this is sports,” Jacobs said. “There is always going to be adversity. But we’ve faced this kind of stuff before where we have to win a bunch of games in a row.”
If Sweden beats Russia in Sunday’s morning session, the world champions will become the first team to qualify. China has the morning off.
“Hopefully we can get a team (in the playoffs) who has a longer wait to make the semifinal,” Sweden skip Niklas Edin said. “Right now it looks like Britain or Norway (will miss out), we will see which it will be.”
Switzerland beat Denmark 9-3 in Saturday’s other game. Neither team can make the medal round.