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Defending champion Einarson shakes off early rust to defeat Duncan at Scotties

Falling behind early was a wake-up call for Kerri Einarson. The two-time defending champion from Gimli, Man.

Falling behind early was a wake-up call for Kerri Einarson.

The two-time defending champion from Gimli, Man., used a steal of three in the fourth end to take the lead, then grabbed control of the match by scoring four in the sixth for a 12-5, eight-end win over Ontario's Hollie Duncan at the Scotties Tournament of Hearts in Thunder Bay, Ont., Saturday.

Einarson, who trailed 2-0 after the opening end, said her team hadn't played since losing in a tiebreaker during the Olympic curling trails in November. After the layoff, it took her some time to read the ice.

"We were a little rusty,'' said the 34-year-old mother of twin daughters. ``Both sides (of the ice) were kind of different and we got caught on a couple of paths. Once I woke up a little bit (we) started catching on to that.''

In other Pool B matches Saturday afternoon, Manitoba's Mackenzie Zacharias edged Mary-Anne Arsenault of B.C. 6-5; Christina Black of Nova Scotia defeated Kerry Galusha of the N.W.T. 7-5 in nine ends; and Quebec's Laurie St-Georges needed an extra end to down Alberta’s Laura Walker 9-8.

In Pool A games Saturday evening, Andrew Crawford of New Brunswick improved to 2-0 with a 7-2 win over the wild card No. 3 rink from Ontario skipped by Emma Miskew (1-1). Northern Ontario’s Krista McCarville also improved to 2-0 with an  8-5 win over Susanne Birt of P.E. I. (1-1).

New Brunswick second Jill Babin credited the rink’s perfect start to mental toughness.

“We really worked hard this year on our mental game and just coming in with confidence,” said Babin. “We really worked hard on believing we can beat these teams. That’s made a really big difference.”

Chelsea Carey and her Wild Card No. 2 rink from Regina evened their record at 1-1 win a 12-7 win over Brigitte MacPhail of Nunavut (0-2).

Tracy Fleury’s Wild Card No. 1 rink, skipped by Selena Njegovan, also improved to 1-1 by stealing a point in the 10th end in a 9-7 win over Penny Barker of Saskatchewan (0-1)

Njegovan, who usually plays third, took over the skipping duties after Fleury tested positive for COVID and was forced to isolate. Fleury, whose team leads both the world and Canadian Team Ranking System, also missed Friday night’s opening draw.

Saskatchewan coach Mark Lang and TSN analyst Russ Howard have also tested positive for COVID and are in isolation.

After falling behind in the first end, Einarson rallied in the second. Facing three Ontario rocks she made a takeout for a point, then tied the game when she stole a single in the third after Duncan missed on a hit and roll.

Duncan was light on a draw in the fourth, allowing Einarson to steal three.

``That was the turning point in the game,'' said Einarson. ``We got the game in our control and kept that pressure on them.''

The Quebec-Alberta match was a see-saw battle. St-Georges tied the game with a steal in the 10th, then won with another steal in the extra end. Walker used a highlight-reel takeout in the eighth to score four points to take an 8-5 lead.

``It was a great game, it was a high-intensity game,'' said St-Georges, of Laval, Que., who is making her second Scotties appearance. ``It's actually exciting to have a first win in the books.''

Third Hailey Armstrong said the team has a playbook setting out different situations they could face. Being down a point in the 10th end without the hammer was one of the scenarios.

``It was stuck in our brains what we needed to do,'' she said.

The competition to crown the Canadian women's curling champion is being held at the Fort Williams Gardens. Due to COVID-19 concerns the event is being staged in an empty arena without fans or media in the building.

Curling Canada has scrapped plans to offer a modified ticket plan for the final three days of the event, which ends Feb. 6.

``After careful thought and consideration, the risks of opening the venue after establishing protocols were not favourable in keeping all participants safe,'' Curling Canada CEO Katherine Henderson said in a release.

The 2021 Scotties was also played in a bubble without fans in Calgary.

``Unfortunately, we're starting to get used to it,'' said Einarson. ``I don't like it. It's challenging.''

This year's Scotties features a modified 18-team draw and the return of the Page playoff system.

The tournament features two pools of nine, seeded based on their final standing on the Canadian Team Ranking System as of Jan. 10, 2022.

There will be an eight-game round robin with the top three teams in each pool advancing to an expanded Page playoff system.

The Scotties champion will represent Canada at the 2022 Women's Curling Championship in Prince George, B.C., from March 19-27.

Einarson's rink is looking to become the first team to clinch three consecutive titles since Winnipeg's Jennifer Jones won between 2008 and 2010.

Saskatchewan's Vera Pezer won three titles between 1971 and 1973 while Colleen Jones of Nova Scotia won four straight beginning in 2001.

``We're not thinking about that,'' said third Val Sweeting. ``Our ultimate goal is to win the Scotties. We're just trying to take it one game at a time.

``We worked really hard in the last two months. We did everything we could staying safe. We're just looking to get better every game and figure out the ice. It's a long road.''

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 29, 2021.

Jim Morris, The Canadian Press