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Team Canada skip Brad Gushue directs the sweep as they play Manitoba in the eight-team championship round at the Tim Hortons Brier at the Brandt Centre in Regina on March 8, 2018.

Andrew Vaughan/THE CANADIAN PRESS

If Brad Gushue doesn't seem like he's feeling pressure at the Canadian men's curling championship, that's because he isn't compared to a year ago.

The skip was under a relentless spotlight in his hometown of St. John's, N.L., as he tried to win his first national title after 13 tries and a pair of runner-up finishes.

Gushue, third Mark Nichols and front end Brett Gallant and Geoff Walker produced the storybook ending by winning the Tim Hortons Brier at Mile One Centre.

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Gushue and Nichols won Olympic gold in 2006, but the 37-year-old Gushue says nothing in his curling career felt as stressful as trying to win that breakthrough Brier at home.

"As much as I loved the experience, if someone asked me if I want to do it again, I'd have to think long and hard," he said Friday. "Unless they told me we'd win, I wouldn't do it again."

So wearing the red and white as defending champion this year in Regina, and attempting to become the first repeat winner since Kevin Martin in 2008 and 2009, hasn't felt like a heavy assignment.

"A lot less stressed, a lot less nervous. Eating better, sleeping better, everything's better," Gushue said.

The challenge round of the top eight teams from pool play concluded Friday with a pair of what turned out to be playoff preview games.

Gushue posted a record of 10-1 with a 5-4 win over Ontario's John Epping (9-2). They meet again in Saturday night's Page playoff between the top two seeds.

Gushue will have hammer to start the game as the higher-ranked team.

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The winner advances directly to Sunday's championship game. The loser drops to Sunday morning's semifinal.

Alberta's Brendan Bottcher downed Northern Ontario's Brad Jacobs 9-3. Those 8-3 teams have a rematch Saturday afternoon with the victor advancing to the semifinal.

The wild-card team skipped by Mike McEwen of Winnipeg went 7-4, and needed an Alberta loss to Northern Ontario to get into a tiebreaker game for the fourth and final playoff berth.

Northern Ontario lead Ryan Harnden was not at the arena Friday because of the flu. He headed to a hospital emergency room instead.

Jacobs, winner of the 2013 Canadian championship, didn't know if his regular lead will be back in the lineup Saturday.

"He did go to the hospital," Jacobs said. "They gave him a bunch of pills and sent him on his way."

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Alternate Tanner Horgan drew in for Harnden and played both games Friday. The 20-year-old shot 93 per cent in Northern Ontario's 5-3 loss to Gushue and 90 per cent in the loss to Alberta.

"We could have won with him today," Jacobs said. "We weren't as sharp as we needed to be and our opponents didn't co-operate. We look forward to the opportunity of redeeming ourselves.

"We're still alive in this thing and we've won the Brier from the fourth spot before."

Bottcher's foursome went from 3-8 last year in St. John's to a playoff team a year later.

"For us as a team, this is everything and more we could have asked for already," the Alberta skip said." I'm going to look at it like it's all gravy from here.

"Everyone we play against is probably a favourite against us at this point, so I'm right in the position I want to be in."

Epping is the Brier rookie who doesn't seem like a rookie because he's played in Olympic trials, Grand Slam tournaments and Canada Cups.

"We've been on the big stage before," he said. "It's just really nice to play really, really well when we're out there."

The 34-year-old acknowledged there may be some nerves the closer his team gets to Sunday's championship game.

"We just keep thinking about winning games," Epping said. "It's going to be pretty different if we get in that position to have a chance on Sunday night.

"I'm generally not a nervous guy, but I think this weekend I'll definitely be battling some nerves."

Not Gushue. Having answered the question of when is he going to win his first Brier, he says he and his teammates are playing unburdened in Regina.

"It's freed us up," Gushue said. "It's allowed us to have some more fun, enjoy the experience and go out and play the way we're capable of playing."

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