We are now about halfway through the women's Olympic curling competition and the situation at the top of the table is clarifying.
Two-time defending world champions Switzerland jumped out to a perfect 5-0 record before falling to reigning Olympic champions Sweden 6-5 in extras. There's still a little room for improvement from fourth Alina Pätz and skip Silvana Tirinzoni (third), both shooting 78% thus far. Plus, Switzerland's last stone efficiency sits in the bottom half of the field at just 25%. However, the Swiss have been excellent at forcing their opponents, doing so 74% of the time, 14% percent better than the next closest team. Someone who doesn't need to improve is second Esther Neuenschwander, who leads all at the position with 87%. At 5-1, they're in a comfortable position and will likely be one of the four teams that moves on to the playoff round; however, Switzerland's remaining schedule is tough, with matches against USA, Korea, and Japan.
Japan is one of three teams with a 4-2 record. After starting their tournament with an 8-5 loss to Sweden, they won four straight before losing 10-5 to Korea on Monday. Japan's success lies with its offensive capabilities. The team is tied for second with +9 points and leads the field with 11 stolen ends. After six games, Japan is leading the table in team percentage with 83.2% and is the only team to have a team percentage of 80% or more in each of its games so far.
Sweden has had an up and down start to the tournament, but still sits tied for second. A lopsided loss to Great Britain, punctuated by four in the fourth by the Eve Muirhead skipped team was embarrassing for the defending champions, but one-point wins over both Canada and Switzerland have kept Sweden on the right side of the win-loss column. Still, if Sweden wants to not only qualify for the playoffs but be in medal contention, the team will have to improve its last stone efficiency, which sits at just 28%, seventh among all teams. This explains why they've given up seven stolen ends so far, more than any team other team except for Denmark and ROC. These issues with the last stone have impacted Sweden's offense, and their scoring differential sits at just +2 through six games.
The most surprising performance so far has been from the Americans. Shooting 80%, skip Tabitha Peterson has led her team to a 4-2 record. They’ve been doing it without controlling hammer, having it in the first end of only one out of six games. They've been ruthless too, stealing nine ends while giving up just three and have the second highest last stone efficiency with 43%. USA's success is being driven by the backend; Peterson sits third among fourth stone throwers with 80.3% and Nina Roth leads all thirds with 83.2%. Roth was shooting 95% against the Koreans in her last game – that's just exceptional curling.
With four losses typically marking the elimination point for teams in Olympic curling, the three teams with a 3-3 record (Great Britain, Canada, and Korea) are feeling the heat.
Korea deserves more from their first five games than a 3-3 record. They are the only team which has all four players are shooting 80% or higher through six games. Skip Kim Eun-jung leads all forth shooters with 83%. But critical misses at key times have held the team back, like Kim's take-out miss in the eighth end against Canada. Instead of scoring three, Korea managed just one after skip stones, missing an opportunity to tie it up. Korea must run the table for a shot at the playoff round.
If Great Britain advances, it will be on the strength of performances from second Jennifer Dodds (83.9%, second overall) and third Vicky Wright (82.1%, second overall). Dodds has rebounded nicely from a disappointing finish to her mixed doubles tournament and Wright has been truly excellent, providing a certain amount of cover for skip Eve Muirhead's decidedly uneven performance. Muirhead sits tied for seventh among skips with 75.2%. Team GB have been good at forcing opponents (59%, third overall) but lopsided victories against the Swedes and Americans have tilted the team's offensive numbers to read a little more positive at first glance than they actually are. While one of only two teams to score a big end (against Sweden; a "big end" means scoring four or more in curling terms), they're also one of only two teams to give up a big end (against Korea, which cost them the game). With two of Great Britain's remaining games against bottom of the table ROC and China, the possibility to qualify for the playoffs is there if the right version of Muirhead shows up.
There is also a glimmer of hope for Team Canada, who also sit at 3-3. With a tough schedule to start the tournament, Jennifer Jones & co. have struggled. Only lead Dawn McEwen has excelled (89.6%, second overall). Particularly problematic have been the struggles of both third Kaitlyn Lawes and skip Jennifer Jones. Both players sit seventh among their respective positions and need to be much better if Canada is to have any hope of advancing. There are signs that the pair are turning it around though, with improved play in their last two games. Lawes shot 85% against both ROC and GB, while Jones arrived in a must-win game against Muirhead, shooting 87%. Canada sits second in terms of force efficiency and third in last stone efficiency; the question is whether they will have enough runway to see their underlying numbers match their scores and secure a playoff birth.
Women's curling round robin games continue until February 17, with the semifinals beginning on February 18 at 7:05 AM Eastern time.
(Photo: Olympic Broadcasting Services)