ST. JOHN'S — The field has been trimmed to four teams vying for this year's Canadian men's curling title.
Perhaps not surprisingly, it's the same four skips that made the Brier playoffs one year ago in Ottawa. Mike McEwen, Brad Gushue, Kevin Koe and Brad Jacobs are back at it again.
Each skip is a star, and the biggest here this week is Gushue.
The pressure has been enormous on Gushue's hometown rink representing Newfoundland and Labrador. The team has fought through that pressure to book a ticket into Friday night's 1 vs. 2 playoff game against Manitoba.
The winner of that matchup advances directly to Sunday's final.
"If we can win tonight it would be a bonus," Gushue said. "There are some injuries. It would be nice for a day or two of rest. There are multiple ways to get to the final and we're going out there to play the best we can and see what happens."
Those injuries include Gushue's balky hip, which he described as "adequate" right now.
"It's improved as the week has gone on," he said. "I've been getting a couple rehab sessions a day."
In 14 appearances, Gushue has never won the Brier Tankard. He has won Olympic gold, however, and has made it to two Brier finals, including last year's. Now he's one win away from another appearance in the title game.
"I think we feel more comfortable out there now," he said, "I think we're ready."
Standing in the way of the hometown heroes is the rink from Manitoba. By virtue of beating Gushue in the round robin, McEwen's team out of Winnipeg placed first and will have the hammer in the first end of tonight's game.
McEwen knows how crucial a strong start will be to quiet the St. John's fans, who have not been shy about supporting Gushue.
"The crowd is going to be interesting tonight. It's going to be loud," McEwen said. "That will be something that we've experienced all this week and it'll be nothing short of amazing again tonight playing in that environment."
This is just the second Brier appearance for McEwen, who's trying to use last year's playoff disappointment as a motivating factor.
"I feel 100 per cent better than last year's Brier... as far as how we're playing and our energy levels, things like that," he said.
Gushue is ready to get back on the ice against the team they lost to earlier this week.
"It'll be nice to get another crack at them. Hopefully we play sharper than we did in the round robin but I like the way our team is going," he said.
Jacobs vs. Koe
Team Canada's Koe has learned to embrace having his back against the wall. The three-time, and defending, Brier champion has had to do things the hard way in the past, having played in the 3 vs. 4 playoff game three previous times.
He also has last year's semifinal victory against Northern Ontario to lean on as he gets ready for a rematch with Jacobs and his rink.
"We've done it before," Koe said. "We know what it takes but until you do it you don't really know how difficult it can be."
On the road to capturing last year's Brier, Koe defeated McEwen, Jacobs and then Gushue in the final. When asked what the key to winning do-or-die games is, Koe didn't have a secret to reveal.
"I don't know that anyone knows the answer to that, but in the past we've found a way to bring our best and hopefully we can do it again."
Koe and Jacobs square off Saturday afternoon in St. John's. The winner of that game moves into the semifinal later that night against the loser of Friday night's 1 vs. 2 game. The 2017 Brier championship final is Sunday night at the Mile One Centre.