LETHBRIDGE, Alta. — It felt like a home game for Darren Moulding and his New Brunswick teammates Saturday night at the Tim Hortons Brier. 

Defending champion Brendan Bottcher spoiled the party. 

Bottcher, playing his former teammate for the first time since cutting him last December, guided his Canada side to a 6-4 victory in front of a lively crowd at the Enmax Centre. 

Bottcher made a hit for two in the 10th end for the round-robin win despite his Edmonton-based crew getting the road team treatment in their home province. 

Moulding helped Bottcher’s team to three straight Brier silver medals before finally winning last season in the Calgary bubble. His high-profile mid-season departure was a stunner and Moulding wasn’t shy about voicing his thoughts about the breakup.

When the former Lethbridge resident joined James Grattan’s team and got back to the Brier, the stage was set for a showdown that delivered.

There was noticeable intensity from the start in their first on-ice meeting since the split. 

Canada second Brad Thiessen gave Moulding a so-called drive-by handshake before the game. After a few stones were played, the New Brunswick vice glided across the ice to offer a few words for Thiessen, who did not engage. 

Thiessen, perhaps a tad rattled, uncharacteristically flashed a rock in the second end. Canada went on to score a single and built a 3-0 lead with back-to-back steals.

The near-capacity crowd — rather well-lubricated in some sections — was rocking from the start. 

Moulding did his part to get them going by waving his arms in “Slapshot”-esque fashion to the delight of his supporters. He occasionally banged his broom on the floorboards during “Let’s Go Moulding!” chants. 

Bottcher didn’t seem fazed at all, playing a steady, consistent game with little offence and few mistakes.

He was heavy with a draw in the seventh end but forced Grattan to a single in the eighth to keep the lead. Bottcher missed a double-takeout for three in the ninth that gave New Brunswick a steal and tied the game.

Grattan was slightly wide with his final throw to set up Bottcher’s game-winning hit.

In other night games, Alberta’s Kevin Koe cruised to a 14-3 rout of Newfoundland and Labrador’s Nathan Young. Yukon’s Thomas Scoffin posted a 13-7 win over Prince Edward Island’s Tyler Smith and Matt Dunstone’s Wild Card Two team shaded Ontario’s Glenn Howard 7-6.

Earlier in the day, Brad Gushue’s team continued its whirlwind winter with a 9-3 victory over Quebec’s Michael Fournier. Gushue, Mark Nichols, Brett Gallant and Geoff Walker opened with a deuce and never trailed the rest of the way.

The St. John’s, N.L.,-based team only spent about a week at home after a long trip back from Beijing, where they won bronze at the Winter Olympics. The players held a two-week training camp in British Columbia before flying to China last month.

Gushue admitted in Beijing that he wasn’t sure whether his team could be in top form at the national playdowns given the mental, physical and emotional toll of competing at the Games.

But the Wild Card One skip, who has won the Brier three times over the last five years, was in full control from the start of the draw.

“I’m trying to weather the storm in the first four or five games and get a feel and get comfortable,” Gushue said. “I think if we’re able to weather that storm, obviously expectations are going to start increasing and we’ll see what we can do.”

Gushue drew for a pair to open the scoring and Nichols made a triple takeout in the second end to set up a steal. A three-ender in the fifth essentially put the game away.

“The expectations are not as high as what they normally are but we made a lot of shots,” Gushue said.

In other early games, Nova Scotia’s Paul Flemming topped Jamie Koe of the Northwest Territories 11-5, Northern Ontario’s Brad Jacobs defeated Wild Card Three’s Jason Gunnlaugson 5-3 and Manitoba’s Mike McEwen dumped B.C.’s Brent Pierce 10-3. 

Colton Lott played lead for Manitoba as a replacement for Colin Hodgson, who recently tested positive for COVID-19 and is nursing a lower-body injury.

“Colton played astounding today,” McEwen said. “He’s well-known for his laser-surgery hitting. But wow, he had great feel today.”

Competition continues through March 13. The winning rink from the 18-team competition will represent Canada at the April 2-10 world men’s curling championship in Las Vegas.

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