GANGNEUNG — It has come down to this — a Canadian curling team needs to win two games on the final day of the round robin just to get into a tiebreaker at the Olympics.
Nobody would have predicted this for Rachel Homan’s Ottawa team, the defending world women’s curling champions. Nobody would have predicted it for a country that has won five medals in five tries in women’s curling at the Olympics, including gold in 2014.
Homan’s team, the one that looked so good in winning the Canadian Olympic trials, is one loss away from missing the podium at the Olympics after a stunning 7-5 defeat at the hands of China’s Bingyu Wang on Tuesday afternoon. It is the first time in eight career meetings that Wang has beaten Homan.
The Homan foursome started this Olympic tournament with three straight losses, bounced back with three straight wins, but reverted to its struggles on Tuesday to fall to 3-4.
They must beat Great Britain’s Eve Muirhead (7:05 p.m. ET Tuesday in Canada) and Russia’s Victoria Moiseeva (6:05 a.m ET, Wednesday) in order to reach a tiebreaker.
“We control our own destiny so if we come out and win then we are in a decent spot,” Canadian third Emma Miskew said.
“Our first world championship, we lost games early, we’ve gone through the C-side of many events before. It’s not uncommon for us. It’s just cause last year we went undefeated at the worlds, everyone thinks that it’s unknown territory. We’ve definitely ground it out before.”
Only South Korea (EunJung Kim) has qualified for the four-team playoffs at this point with a 6-1 record. Sweden is second at 5-2, while Great Britain and Japan (Satsuki Fujisawa) are at 5-3. Canada needs to beat Great Britain to bring that team back to four losses but that could also open the door for other teams — the United States and China are both 4-4 — to squeeze into the tiebreaker situation.
It should be noted that there will be only one tiebreaker game no matter what. If multiple teams are tied for fourth place then head-to-head records and last stone draws come into play. Canada has been good at last stone draws this week and currently sits second in the cumulative standings behind non-factor Switzerland (2-5).
A long-shot scenario is possible where Sweden, Japan, Canada, Great Britain, China and the United States all finish at 5-4, with two teams getting outright playoff spots and two more playing the tiebreaker. Again, head to head records and last-stone draws would be used to determine the order and, in that case, Canada could earn a playoff spot outright as long as it maintains a good score in last stone draws on Wednesday.
“We wanted to win out because we knew we’d be in a really good spot at 6-3 but we know that 5-4 gets us no worse than a tiebreaker so that’s our only focus moving forward,” Canadian coach Adam Kingsbury said. “There’s no other option. We literally are in must-win games and that’s OK, we’ve been there before.”
The problem is the Canadians simply haven’t played well enough. Homan curled just 73% (69% on draws) and Miskew came in at 76%. Those numbers have to come up for this team to win two games on Wednesday.
They don’t seem to have the confidence right now, in their shot-calling or shot-making, that you would expect from world champions.
They had the hammer in the first end against China but, after blanking the first, gave up a steal of two in the second end. They fought back with a steal of two of their own in the fourth to take the lead but fell behind for good when they gave up a three in the fifth.
In that end, Homan had a draw option, but chose a hit that didn’t work out. Wang had no problem trying the delicate draw and she nailed it for three points.
Homan is undeterred, at least publicly.
“I still think we’re playing a really strong game,” she said. “We missed a few lines on a few spots in the ice but we’ll come back strong.”
She’s been saying that for a full week now. They did come back strong once, getting their first win over the United States. They got a bit fortunate to beat Switzerland and then played very well again on Monday against Japan.
But there have been as many downs as ups in this tournament and Tuesday’s loss was another trip down the slide. Their only hope now is they can rise up one more time and stay at that level this time.
You can be sure people in Canada expect them to do it, no matter how tall an order it may be.
“The expectation is there simply because they’re the best team in the world and they have high expectations of themselves,” Canadian coach Renee Sonnenberg said. “They’re passionate about this game, they take it very seriously, as any professional athlete would. The expectation that anyone else puts on them is no higher than what they put on themselves and I fully expect them to rise to that.”
As daunting as the situation looks for Canada, Sonnenberg said this team is not performing all that badly. For instance, Homan is third among skips with a cumulative curling percentage of 77, Miskew is second among thirds at 82%, Joanne Courtney is third among seconds at 78% and Lisa Weagle is tops among leads at 87%.
So just how big is the gap between that 2017 world championship-winning team and this one?
“Not as big as people are making it out to be,” Sonnenberg said. “I believe they’re on the cusp of phenomenal things.”
We’ll find out on Wednesday.