Women's Curling in Pyeongchang: Team Canada's Losses and Other Surprises

With round robin play completed in women's curling, the story has to be the exceptional play of host nation, Korea. Cruising to an 8-1 record, the team was able to get their alternate Kim Choci into two games in the lead position (curling at 87%). The crew is nicknamed the Garlic Girls in Korean media (after the main crop in Uiseong County, where the players hail from).

To say they were longshots to medal prior to the start of competition would be an understatement. Ranked eighth in the world heading into play, the Korean team was in tough just to qualify for the playoff round. But after beating the likes of medal favorites Canada, Great Britain, and Sweden, the team skipped by Kim Eun-jung entered the semifinal heavily favored to advance.

Being the home nation in curling does come with an advantage beyond crowd support. Team Korea is most familiar with the ice and stones and that's a bonus. But their unlikely rise didn't come out of the blue, and can't be explained away as simple home team advantage. Team Korea was simply good and there were signs this performance was possible. At their first World Championship in 2017, the team finished sixth in the round-robin with a 5-6 record. But two performances, that of second Kim Seon-yeong and third Kim Kyeong-ae, stood out. Both finished in the top 5 player percentages for their positions hinted at the potential for more. Kim Seon-yeong also pitched a perfect game against Scotland.

Potential became reality at Pyeongchang 2018. All four Korean players finished in the top five curling percentage by position. Most importantly, skip Kim Eun-jung was a force all week long. She curled at 79% during round robin play, good enough for second place among skips, including a 98% in the team's 11-2 dismantling of the Olympic athletes from Russia. I wrote about their impressive victory over Canada in the opening game in the first part of this series, but Korea also looked especially impressive while beating China 12-5. Korea was relentless with hammer: taking 3 in the first, the third, and recording 4 in the fifth to make it 10-2 at the break. It was that same relentless pressure Korea employed in its victory against OAR. Impressively, Korea stole 3 points in each of the first three ends before surrendering just a single in four, before adding a deuce in five to enter the break up 11-1. After a single OAR point in six, it was handshakes.

Team Korea didn't just specialize in blowouts. They also prevailed in close games against stiff competition. In addition to the team's 8-6 victory over Canada, they also topped gold-medal favorites Sweden 7-6, holding off a late comeback attempt. Key to the Korean victory was a steal of 2 in four, and holding Sweden to 1 with hammer in ends five and seven while scoring their deuce with hammer in six and eight. In nine draws, Korea had the best score differential with a +31, fifteen more than runner-up Sweden. Perhaps more importantly, while they had 10 big ends (scoring three or more), they never gave up more then two in an end through nine games. Korea absolutely deserved its playoff spot.

Team Sweden comfortably qualified for the playoffs in second position with a 7-2 record. Individual performances were the strength of the second-place team. Skip Anna Hasselborg led all skips by curling at 82%, third Sara McManus led her position by curling at 84%, and Agnes Knochenauer also curled at 84% to led the way among seconds. Only lead Sofia Mabergs was off the pace, curling at 83% and fourth among leads. Sweden stole 7 more ends than they gave up and had a point differential of +16. While they didn't show the same big end ability of Korea (Sweden only scored 3 four times in round robin play) they had a comparable defensive record, not once giving up more than two. Unfortunately for Sweden both losses came against teams (Korea and Japan) who also featured in playoff competition. Still, Sweden performed as expected: top individual play and a playoff spot.

Team Great Britain qualified in third place with a 6-3 record. Eve Muirhead once again impressed, finishing third among skips, curling at 79% for the week. As is typical with Team GB, her team was not quite at her level finishing middle of the pack at each position. Team GB particularly impressed after an 8-6 nail-biter with Sweden. The teams were evenly matched, trading points through nine ends until Sweden managed 2 with hammer in the tenth for the win. After the loss to Sweden, Muirhead and company sat at 3-3, with their playoff chances in jeopardy. They responded by rolling to three straight wins to secure a playoff spot. Muirhead (88%) and third Anna Sloan (80%) shined brightly against Switzerland. Sloan (84%) continued her strong play in the win against Japan. It was a total team win against Canada in Great Britain's final game of the round robin. Lead Lauren Gray outcurled Canadian lead Lisa Weagle 86% to 83%, GB second Vicki Adams outcurled Canada's Joanne Courtney 93% to 91%, and skip Muirhead outcurled Rachel Homan 83% to 78%. Now, those differences aren't huge (usually a difference of 10% between leads, skips etc. illustrates a significant gap in play) but they do show that GB had a slight advantage in play.

The game started according to plan for Canada. Holding GB to one with hammer in the first end, Canada scored a deuce in two, and stole a point in three. Canada held GB to a single in four and blanked the fifth to set up hammer in the even ends. But Homan had to settle for the single in six and Muirhead responded by blanking the seventh and notching two in nine. With GB now in control of the game, Homan was desperate for 2 in nine or a blank. Muirhead denied her both options. Facing 2 in the four foot, Muirhead tried a double take-out. She made it to lie two with a Canadian stone sitting in the 12-foot as third stone. Somewhat uncharacteristically, Homan played the safe shot, drawing to the 4-foot for one.

Canada took a precarious lead 5-4 lead to the tenth end but was hampered by mistake after mistake. Frustratingly, Canadian third Emma Miskew's touch left her. Probably Team Canada's best player at the Games, she was anything but in the tenth. Facing 3, she missed a raise with her first shot. Trying a take-out with her second, she missed again, nudging a third GB stone into the four-foot. Facing 4 with her first shot, Homan managed a double take-out to cut the British shot stones in half. With her final shot, Homan tried a draw to limit the damage but came up short, securing two points and the win for Muirhead's team. Yes, there were some key breakdowns from the Homan team, but that shouldn't take away from an impressive win for Muirhead, who was excellent.

Canada's failure to qualify for the playoff round is both shocking and a major disappointment. Many Canadian curling fans and media members have spent the past week dissecting the play of Homan and her team, questioning the "choice" of sending the Homan team to Pyeongchang -- though it wasn't a choice, they won the right to represent Canada in December). They have also criticized the team's ability to compete internationally, and the apparent parity in curling.

Sometimes in curling, you just have a bad week at the wrong time. I'm wary of reading too much into the performance of Homan, Miskew, Courtney, and Weagle and what it says about both the state of Canadian curling and international curling because, well, sometimes in curling you just have a bad week. And as bad weeks go, the Homan rink was actually pretty good. Weagle led all leads, curling at 87% in the round robin. Courtney struggled, but still managed to curl 80%, good enough for third among seconds. Miskew had a pretty good week and curled at 83%, second only to Sweden's McManus. Homan struggled, curling at 78% for the week, but still managed to place fourth among the 10 skips. Canada was third among all teams with a +9 point differential. In short, Team Canada, despite its obvious struggles, probably deserved a playoff spot based on its numbers. That they didn't advance to the semi-finals is due as much to several mistakes at key times as it does strong opposition play.

The international field boasts several strong teams. Korea, Sweden, and Great Britain were all worthy of playoff spots and earned their victories over Canada. But 11 months ago the Homan rink went 13-0 to win their first World Championship. In that tournament each Canadian player finished in the top two for their positions after round robin play; Courtney was a full 10% better than her Olympic performance at 90%, and Homan dominated at 85%. The team was even more dominant in playoff action, curling at 90% as a team in the one-two game against Russia and then matching that performance in the final. Homan curled a 93% in that game, she just couldn't find that form when it mattered most this week. That simply happens sometimes in curling.

To suggest that this disappointing performance from the Homan team is what we should expect from this world-class group ignores not just that unprecedented World Championship record but a lengthy history of excellence and a record of consistently outperforming the opposition. At the 2017 Scotties, Weagle, Courtney, Miskew, and Homan were each first at their position in terms of curling percentage. At Roar of the Rings in December, Courtney, Miskew, and Homan each led at their position. Homan was a dominant 85% during the round robin and outcurled the legendary Jennifer Jones 93% to 76% in the semi-finals. She also outcurled the previously undefeated Chelsea Carey 88% to 76% in the final.

This is still perhaps the best team in the world, but they simply were not best at the Olympics. And that sucks. But it doesn't mean that the quality of the field was lacking or the playoffs haven't been worth watching. Far from it. Even though a medal hopeful like Team Canada disappointed, the women's tournament has been a success with exceptional play, surprising contenders, and new fans. Korea, Sweden, Great Britain, and Japan deserved their playoff berths and curling's final weekend promises to be worthy of its spot to close out the Olympics.

Check back for analysis of the women's curling medal games!

(Photo: Team Homan/Twitter)

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