Everything appears to be lining up nicely for Newfoundland and Labrador skip Brad Gushue in his quest to finally raise the Tim Hortons Brier tankard.
His St. John's foursome is the top-ranked team in the country. Gushue is coming off a Canadian Open title and smooth run through the provincial playdowns. Boisterous crowds are expected to pack Mile One Centre to cheer his every throw at the national men's curling championship, which opens Saturday.
All Gushue needs to do now is outlast a strong field and hope that a lingering left hip/groin injury doesn't flare up.
"It isn't where I want it, there's no doubt about it," he said. "And I don't think it will get to where I'd like it to be until the off-season when I'm not curling and I can spend all of my energy getting it stronger."
The injury kept Gushue off the ice for a few months at the start of the season but he has impressed since his return in December. He has continued his regular gym work and stretching routines to keep the affected area as strong as possible.
Gushue doesn't expect the injury to impact his performance, but admits he's a little worried about the length of the competition.
"It is what it is and we'll get through it," he said. "It's not going to stop me from playing."
Gushue made it to the final last year in Ottawa before falling to Kevin Koe, who returns this year as the Team Canada entry. Other teams expected to be in the playoff mix include Manitoba's Mike McEwen, Northern Ontario's Brad Jacobs, Ontario's Glenn Howard and John Morris of British Columbia.
"I think it's a really tough field but I think we stack up great," Koe said. "To me essentially it's pretty much the same field as last year. A couple tweaks here and there, B.C. has a little stronger team I think with Morris in there. But last year was so tough and we managed to win it.
"This year it'll be as tough and very similar. Obviously lots of favourites, lots of team in contention, but I think we stack up as good as anybody."
Skip Adam Casey is representing Saskatchewan after playing for P.E.I. last year while Brendan Bottcher, a world junior champion in 2012, will wear Alberta colours. Veteran skips Jean-Michel Menard of Quebec, New Brunswick's Mike Kennedy and Jamie Koe of the Northwest Territories are also in the field.
Round-robin play begins Saturday afternoon.
Gushue, who's making his 14th career Brier appearance, will try to become the first Newfoundland and Labrador skip to win since Jack MacDuff in 1976.
It's the first time St. John's has hosted the Brier since 1972.
"I think everybody's provincials meant a little bit more this year because the Brier is in St. John's, because they know what it's going to be like," Gushue said. "They know the atmosphere is going to be incredible, they know it's going to be a sellout and it's a great city to have any event in. There's a lot of excitement and the city here is just abuzz.
"I can't articulate it enough. I think people are going to be just blown away the week of the Brier and how the city is going to handle it."
Prince Edward Island's Eddie MacKenzie, Yukon's Craig Kochan, Nova Scotia's Jamie Murphy and Nunavut's Jim Nix will battle in a qualifying round for the final entry in the 12-team field.
Gushue reached the final in 2007 before losing to Howard in Hamilton. The St. John's skip trailed by one point after eight ends before Howard scored three for a 10-6 result.
Last year, Gushue gave up a deuce in the ninth and dropped a 9-5 decision to Koe.
"There are some adjustments that need to be made and maybe being a little bit more aggressive and not just in our strategy but in our throws," Gushue said. "I mean really trying to make a shot as opposed to trying not to miss it. I think that's probably one thing that we learned because we would throw good rocks but we were being cautious where we put the broom and how we swept it.
"And sometimes, especially at this level, you can't do that. You've got to be going for every shot and try to make every shot perfect."
The top four teams at the end of round-robin play will advance to the Page playoffs. Any tiebreakers and the 1-2 Page game are set for March 10 and the medal games will be played March 12.
The Brier winner will represent Canada at the April 1-9 Ford world men's curling championship in Edmonton.