CALGARY — Craig Savill recalls a mantra that Wayne Middaugh followed back when they were teammates.
"He always said, 'The round robin is for practising. The playoffs are for real.'"
It's a line that should make other teams shudder at the Canadian men's curling championship.
Middaugh was one of the top skips in the preliminary round at the Tim Hortons Brier and has a share of first place entering the final day of championship pool play. His Wild Card Three team split its games Friday to sit at 8-2 along with Wild Card Two's Kevin Koe.
"You try and exceed your own expectations every day and we've done that so far," Middaugh said.
Middaugh guided his Ontario-based team to a 9-5 win over Saskatchewan's Matt Dunstone in the afternoon draw at the Markin MacPhail Centre. Middaugh dropped a 10-8 decision to Ontario's John Epping in the evening.
In the other late games, Koe's Alberta-based team scored four in the 10th end for an 8-5 victory over Northern Ontario's Brad Jacobs. Dunstone rebounded with an 8-7 win over Alberta's Brendan Bottcher and Canada's Brad Gushue dumped Manitoba's Jason Gunnlaugson 12-2.
Saskatchewan, Canada, Ontario and Alberta were tied at 7-3 while Northern Ontario and Manitoba were left with slim playoff hopes at 6-4. The top three teams at the end of pool play Saturday will advance to the playoffs.
The second- and third-place teams will meet in a semifinal Sunday afternoon. The winner will face the top seed in the final on Sunday night.
"Anything can happen really," Gushue said. "If you're going to get hot, tomorrow is the day to get hot."
In the Friday afternoon games, Bottcher needed an extra end to complete an 8-7 victory over Koe. Jacobs beat Gushue 7-2 and Gunnlaugson edged Epping 7-6.
Middaugh, a three-time Brier champion, is making his competitive return at the WinSport Arena after a five-year absence. He's filling in for injured skip Glenn Howard, who is serving as a fifth and a coach this week.
"With the leadership of Glenn Howard, this team has embraced our roles," Middaugh said. "We're doing everything we can and we're staying right with (the others)."
Savill won Brier and world titles in 2012 on a team with Middaugh, second Brent Laing and Howard at skip. He recalled that Middaugh would usually take a few games to find his rhythm and then raise his performance when it counted.
"What's scary is Wayne is already playing really well and he's only going to get better as this weekend goes on," Savill said.
Middaugh is making his first Brier appearance since 2013. He was inducted into the Canadian Curling Hall of Fame last year.
The 53-year-old native of Victoria Harbour, Ont., underwent surgery to repair a broken leg after a ski crash in early 2016. Middaugh had a titanium rod inserted into the leg and believed his competitive curling days were over.
He moved into coaching a few years ago and still plays a weekly game with Howard and their wives at the local league level.
Middaugh originally planned to serve as an alternate at the Brier. He switched roles with Howard after the veteran skip suffered a variety of injuries in a recent snowmobile crash.
The experienced Middaugh hasn't missed a beat. His ice-reading skills remain superior, his trademark competitive spirit never left and he's delivering quality shots at will.
His presence also seems to have raised the play of third Scott Howard, second David Mathers and lead Tim March. Middaugh threw at 91 per cent Friday afternoon and was the low man on the team, which shot 94 per cent overall.
Making the rink all the more dangerous is there's little pressure given they weren't expected to be in the mix on the final weekend.
So how does it feel playing with so-called house money?
"We're the wild card baby," Middaugh said with a smile.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 12, 2021.
Follow @GregoryStrongCP on Twitter.
The Canadian Press