03/07/2013 02:10 EST | Updated 05/07/2013 05:12 EDT

Ontario's Howard survives challenge from Newfoundland's Gushue at the Brier

EDMONTON - Ontario finally had to sweat for a win at the Canadian men's curling championship.

After mowing through the Tim Hortons Brier field with ruthless efficiency, Glenn Howard's team held off a tenacious Brad Gushue of Newfoundland and Labrador 6-5 on Thursday.

The defending champions remained alone atop the standing at 8-0.

While Howard's Coldwater and District Curling Club rink had yet to mathematically secure a playoff berth, eight wins has made the cut every year since playoffs were introduced into the Brier format in 1980.

"That's got to get us into something," Howard said. "We've just want to keep the pedal to the metal now and keep building on how we're playing."

Howard has skipped Ontario into the playoffs seven straight years and won the Canadian title in 2007 as well as last year in Saskatoon. His teams also lost in the Brier final four times during that span.

The top four teams at the conclusion of the round robin Friday make the Page playoffs with ties for fourth solved by tiebreaker games.

Seven wins has been enough for playoffs at the Brier some years, but not enough for those teams with four losses to feel very confident about their chances.

Ontario and Newfoundland were the frontrunning teams this week, but Gushue's St. John's rink dropped to 7-2 with the loss to Howard. Manitoba's Jeff Stoughton moved up to 7-1 with a 6-5 win over New Brunswick's James Grattan.

Quebec's Jean-Michel Menard was 6-2 ahead of Northern Ontario's Brad Jacobs at 5-3 heading into Thursday evening's draw.

After losing four of their first five, the host province was still in play at 4-4. Alberta's Kevin Martin thumped Eddie MacKenzie of Prince Edward Island 7-2 for the hometown team's third straight win.

Alberta and Saskatchewan's Brock Virtue, also 4-4, were to meet at night. Should Martin keep winning, it sets up a high-stakes Friday night draw when the four-time Canadian champion faces Howard.

Howard, third Wayne Middaugh and front end Brent Laing and Craig Savill all had shooting percentages over 90 against Newfoundland, who as a team curled 85 per cent and produced crowd-pleasing shots.

"We had to work for that one because Brad wasn't going away," Howard admitted. "I thought that was one hell of a curling game. It was a fun game to play and we won by a couple of inches."

Gushue's third Brett Gallant executed a spectacular raise triple hit in the eighth end. In the ninth, Howard answered Gushue's double raise takeout to lie two stones with a finesse double tap to lie 2.

Howard had the hammer coming home with the game tied at 5-5. The Ontario skip made a draw to the four-foot rings for the win.

"You've got to take advantage of every single chance they give you and they don't give you very many," Gushue said.

While Rexall Place spectators are enjoying Martin's resurgence, Newfoundland also had their support against Ontario.

"We do have an Alberta player and half of Newfoundland is living in Fort MacMurray or Grande Prairie," Gushue pointed out earlier this week. "If we can be second-favourite at this point we'll take that."

Grattan's loss to Manitoba dropped New Brunswick to 4-5. Jamie Koe of the Territories fell to 3-6 with an 8-7 loss to B.C.'s Andrew Bilesky. B.C. was 1-7, P.E.I. was 1-8 and Nova Scotia's Paul Flemming was winless in eight games.