The 2010 Tim Hortons Brier is starting to evolve as it should with the heavyweights rearing back and throwing some huge punches Sunday at the Halifax Metro Centre.
Ontario's Glenn Howard, the odds-on favourite to claim the national men's curling championship, has taken his place at the top of the heap, recording a pair of victories to leave him at 3-0 after Draws 3 and 4 of the 12-team event in the morning and afternoon. But Alberta's Kevin Koe is nestled beside him after defeating Newfoundland and Labrador's Brad Gushue 7-6 in the first true battle of Brier contenders in the evening tussle.
Koe used a draw for three in the eighth end, after Gushue attempted an in-off, to grab a 7-5 lead on his way to his third straight victory to sit tied for first. Gushue slid back to 2-1, tied with Saskatchewan's Darrell McKee and Quebec's Serge Reid.
"It was huge," Koe said of the eighth end after watching Gushue make steals of two in the fourth and one in the seventh in a topsy-turvy game that featured some big-weight takeouts and narrow misses. "We're a pretty good team at keeping 'er clean when we get up a couple, especially in eight. That's the turning point. In worst case, I think you should be tied up coming home with hammer and we were one better than that."
Koe had Gushue in a mess of trouble early, but flashed on a thin double for the steal of two in the fourth, and the popular Maritime skip admitted to feeling the pressure all night.
"We had a terrible game," said Gushue, who earlier flattened McKee 11-5 in seven ends with a four-ender and two three-enders. "We were hanging on right from the get-go. If Kevin makes a good shot in the fourth end it's over pretty early. It seemed like every shot I had was all or nothing. Unfortunately, I missed one in the eighth end that gave them three and that was the ball game there."
Manitoba's Jeff Stoughton, favoured to make weekend playoffs along with Howard, Kevin Koe and Gushue, is 3-1, while New Brunswick's James Grattan and Northern Ontario's Brad Jacobs are 2-2. Jeff Richard of B.C. sits 1-2, while P.E.I.'s Rod MacDonald and Nova Scotia's Ian Fitzner-LeBlanc are 0-3. Jamie Koe of the Yukon/Northwest Territories - Kevin's brother - is 0-4.
In other evening games, Stoughton doubled Grattan 8-4; Jacobs downed Jamie Koe 9-5; and Richard won 9-5 over Fitzner-LeBlanc. Earlier, Howard outlasted Richard 7-6 in the afternoon after a very thorough 9-4 thrashing of Jacobs in the morning. Howard actually trailed Jacobs 3-1 after two before rebounding off the canvas.
"We were a little slow getting started, but we're there now," said Howard's third Richard Hart.
"We're not really precise," suggested Howard. "I don't want to beat the ice up. The ice is solid, it's just a little tricky in spots and you have to be aware of that. We are a little bit rusty, but we seem to be getting a little better. We're getting more adjusted to the ice and more confident and that's what this is, a game of confidence."
Gushue and Kevin Koe got off to fabulous starts in the afternoon with 3-0 advantages after their first ends.
"The key for us is that Ryan (Fry, his second) and Jamie (Korab, the lead) continue to play the way they're playing. They're playing really solid, which gives Mark (Nichols) easy shots, which in turn gives me easy shots," Gushue said of his front end.
Needless to say, they flattened out in the evening.
As for Koe, it was a brilliant bit of scrubbing by lead Nolan Thiessen and second Carter Rycroft that got the Alberta skip's final stone just by the front guard for a tap-back for his three in his opening end in his 9-4 win over P.E.I. in the afternoon.
Howard now relaxes until he faces his nephew Steven Howard - who plays third for Grattan - on Monday afternoon.
Steven's dad, Russ Howard, a 14-time Brier competitor and now a television analyst, will be part of the TSN broadcast for that game.
"It's cool. From the family perspective, it's absolutely surreal to have us all out there, playing and watching and commentating and all that. It's really a neat feeling as a father, an uncle and a brother," said Glenn, whose son Scott, a proficient curler on his own, is also here watching and champing at the bit to join dad down the road.