GANGNEUNG — All along, even in the midst of an uncharacteristic losing streak, Kevin Koe and his teammates insisted they were playing well enough to be medal contenders.
Turns out they were absolutely right.
All four Canadian curlers were near the top of the rankings in terms of percentages at their respective positions and, on paper, it looked like they were in control.
Somehow, though, after starting out 4-0, they weren’t getting results. First it was one loss, then two, then three in a row, a somewhat shocking slide for a country that has won three straight gold medals in men’s curling at the Olympics
The cool, calm demeanour the Canadian men showed during the losing skid paid dividend on Tuesday morning as Koe and Co., regrouped for a hard-fought 8-4 win over Japan. There was a little more intensity in their voices in this game, perhaps a bit more urgency to their game, with so much on the line, and the Canadians played very well against a resilient Japanese squad.
“We’re not rookies out here so we can tell if there’s glaring issues or mistakes or mechanical issues or things that are happening or if there’s tension on the team or guys aren’t getting along,” Canadian lead Ben Hebert said. “None of that was really happening. We were playing really good. We’ve played a hell of a lot worse than we were playing in those three losses and won a ton of games. The teams that are here are Olympic teams too and they’re standing up and representing their countries well and we ran into three hot teams. Fortunately for us we came back today with a big win and we’re in a good spot.”
The victory improved Canada’s record to 5-3 and puts them back into position to make the playoffs and possibly even finish second — Sweden’s Niklas Edin (7-1) locked up top spot, while Switzerland, Canada and Great Britain are tied for second at 5-3.
“We’ve given ourselves a chance and that’s all you can ask,” Canadian second Brent Laing said.
“We know that Canada doesn’t lose three games in a row very often. Unfortunately it happened to both teams this week. But we’re still in it and we’ve put ourselves in position to get to the weekend.”
It has been a roller-coaster ride for the Canadian curlers in these Olympics. Rachel Homan’s team started the women’s tournament with three straight losses before rebounding for three straight wins. Koe’s team won four, then lost three. The third was a 9-7 decision at the hands of the United States on Monday afternoon that caused a bit of consternation with the curling fans back home.
All that seems so unusual given that the Canadian men and women went through the 2014 Olympics in Sochi with just two losses combined, with Jennifer Jones and Brad Jacobs winning gold medals.
In the history of curling at the Olympics — including the mixed doubles event this year — medals have been handed out 11 times. Canada has 11 medals, including six gold.
People have almost come to expect Canadians to steamroll their way through the Olympics.
But here’s the problem.
The other teams are playing well too.
So, while Koe (83 per cent through six games, second among skips), third Marc Kennedy (90 per cent, first), second Laing (84 per cent, second) and Hebert (86 per cent, fourth) are all playing top-notch games, it doesn’t guarantee victories.
“Obviously it feels great to get back in the winning circle,” Hebert said, adding that even Tuesday morning’s game was closer than the score indicated.
“We played another really good game. Japan actually played really good. They made a lot of shots early and I was like ‘Oh, here we go again.’ We finally took a advantages of a couple misses.”
Canada finishes off the round robin on Wednesday afternoon with a game against Denmark. The Canadian women were on the ice later Tuesday afternoon against China, looking to improve on their 3-3 mark.
At worst — if they lose to Denmark — the Canadian men are going to be tied for fourth place. That would put them in at least a tiebreaker situation, though the complicated tiebreaking system at the Olympics would not guarantee them a game.
If more than one team is tied for the final playoff spot, head-to-head records and cumulative last stone draws (pre-game draws for the hammer) come into play and a team with a poorer overall score can be eliminated.
The best scenario is for Canada to take care of business against Denmark (2-5). The way they are playing, it should happen.
“Games come down to some big shots,” Koe said. “We’re playing well but I could make a few bigger ones for the guys. It’s something I’ve been able to do in the past in big events and I’ve missed a few here this week.
“It’s not like we’re out there throwing 60-70 per cent out there,” Koe said. “We’re playing solid but teams are playing well against us.”