Kerri Einarson is enjoying the prospect of a direct entry into the Canadian women's curling championship.
Winning the Manitoba women's curling crown means avoiding Friday's sudden-death, wild-card game at the Scotties Tournament of Hearts in Moose Jaw, Sask.
Einarson has participated in the play-in game both times since its introduction in 2018. She's known both joy and heartbreak.
She and her current team out of the Gimli Curling Club flew to Sydney, N.S., in 2019 only to turn around and go home after losing the wild-card game to Casey Scheidegger.
Einarson prevailed two years ago with a different foursome to become the first Team Wild Card at Hearts. She lost the national final that year to provincial archrival Jennifer Jones.
Beating six-time Canadian champion Jones in the Manitoba final this year allows Einarson to bypass Friday's nailbiter altogether.
"I've played in it twice now and it's such a pressure game," Einarson told The Canadian Press. "You go there for one day and you're possibly coming home.
"It's actually pretty stressful and I didn't want to go through that again."
The two top-ranked women's teams in Curling Canada's Canadian Team Rankings System (CTRS) that didn't win their province or territory are the wild-card teams.
So it will be No. 3 Jones versus No. 1 Tracy Fleury in an all-Manitoba meeting Friday for a berth in the main draw starting Saturday.
Whoever emerges has to be considered a title contender joining Einarson, Ontario's Rachel Homan and defending champion Chelsea Carey among the favourites.
"It's always been tough to come out of Manitoba and I think that's why we have really great teams," Einarson said. "You know you have to compete against the best."
Expect Alberta's Laura Crocker, Saskatchewan's Robyn Silvernagle and Northern Ontario's Krista McCarville to also be in the playoff hunt in Moose Jaw.
Carey beat Homan 8-6 in last year's Hearts final in Sydney. Homan missed draws in the 10th and extra ends to give up three points to Carey's rink from Calgary.
Einarson appeared headed to a third straight wild-card game against Jones in the Manitoba final.
With her final stone, Einarson threaded a draw between Jones counters to cover the button. Jones could not get to Einarson's shot stone and gave up a steal of one.
"That is for sure by far the biggest shot that I've had to make in my curling career," Einarson said.
Hearts prize money will equal the men's Canadian championship for the first time with a $300,000 purse and $105,000 going to the winning team.
Second is worth $65,000, third $45,000 and the remaining $85,000 is dispersed among the remaining 13 teams based on ranking at the end of the tournament.
The sixteen teams including all 14 provinces and territories, the wild-card entry and Carey's Team Canada will compete in two pools of eight.
The top four teams from each pool advance to the championship round, which determines the final four for the Page playoff.
The winner of the Feb. 23 final represents Canada at the 2020 women's world championship March 14-22 in Prince George, B.C., and returns to next year's Hearts in Thunder Bay, Ont., as Team Canada.
The Tournament of Hearts is back in Moose Jaw just five years after the city last hosted it. Jones claimed the fifth of her six national titles there in 2015.
Einarson, third Val Sweeting, second Shannon Birchard and lead Briane Meilleur are all former skips in their second season together as a team
After the pressure-cooker of the Manitoba playdowns, the skip feels her team is battle-ready to wear Manitoba's buffalo in Moose Jaw.
"Going forward, I think that's going to be good for us because we're going to have really tough competition at nationals," Einarson said.
"We know we're going to have to keep up with good play and keep putting pressure on those other teams."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 13, 2020.
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Donna Spencer, The Canadian Press