Glenn Howard has made the playoffs at the Canadian men's curling championships for the 13th time in his 14 appearances.
But this road to the final four at the Tim Hortons Brier felt like the hardest one yet for the Ontario skip.
Five extra-end games and ailing Craig Savill at lead has made the 2012 Brier feel like a marathon for Howard, even though his was the first team to nail down a playoff berth.
"This is the longest, hardest grind that we've ever done at a Brier," Howard said Wednesday. "Five extra-end games, I don't care if you win or lose, those are tough.
"Craig, you've got to give him credit. He's not feeling very well and he's played awesome since having two games off. We've had to work for every single win that we've gotten this week.
A 10-5 win over Prince Edward Island on Wednesday was the easiest of the tournament so far for the Howard team. Of their five extra-end games, four were wins.
Howard, Koe meet in final round-robin draw
At 8-1, Ontario also secured a top-two finish when the preliminary round concludes Thursday.
Only Alberta's Kevin Koe at 7-2 could mathematically catch Ontario at the top of the standings. Ontario and Alberta meet in the final round-robin draw Thursday.
The top four teams advance to the Page playoff. Ties for fourth are solved by tiebreaker games.
Ontario will play in Friday's Page playoff between the top two seeds. The winner advances directly to Sunday's final, which is familiar territory for Howard, Savill and second Brent Laing.
They've made the final five of the last six years and won the Canadian title in 2007. Third Wayne Middaugh, who skipped Ontario to a Brier win in 1998, joined the team for this season.
The loser of Friday's playoff game drops to Saturday's semifinal to meet the winner of an earlier playoff between the third and fourth seeds.
At 6-3, Manitoba's Rob Fowler was poised to land a playoff berth.
The Brandon foursome beat Alberta 8-5 on Wednesday night for Kevin Koe's second loss in three games.
Northern Ontario's Brad Jacobs stayed in contention with a third win in a row. That put the Sault Ste. Marie foursome at 5-4 alongside Jamie Koe of Yukon/Northwest Territories.
"We're hanging in there," Jacobs said. "We just want to get in."
After winning five of their first six, the Territories lost three in a row. Jamie fell 11-3 to his older brother Wednesday morning. The last and only Territories team to make the Brier playoffs was Don Twa's in 1975.
"We still have a chance at fourth place," Jamie Koe said. "If we at least come back with a solid performance and don't win, you can live with that. If you just don't play well and struggle, then that's harder to live with."
Nova Scotia's Jamie Murphy, B.C.'s Jim Cotter and New Brunswick's Terry Odishaw were 4-5 heading into Thursday. Brad Gushue of Newfoundland and Labrador, Quebec's Robert Desjardins and Prince Edward Island's Mike Gaudet were all 3-6 ahead of Saskatchewan's Scott Manners at 2-7.
Flu bugs taking toll
Savill says he's had fluids replaced intravenously daily since Saturday for about six litres in his estimation. Alternate Scott Howard, Glenn's son, played in back-to-back games earlier in the tournament and finished the game against P.E.I.
"It feels like it's food poisoning, but it's lasted a lot longer than food poisoning," Savill said. "When I go for the hard sweeps end to end I feel woozy at the end. I'm trying to pick my spots and I'm hoping I don't have to go end to end on three or four in a row."
B.C. third Sasha Carter required intravenous treatment at the Canadian women's curling championship in Red Deer, Alta., last month, because of a similar ailment.
"Sasha was actually talking to my wife and she was the one who suggested 'get Craig on the IV,"' Savill. "She said it was her magic potion for the Scotties."
Ontario isn't the only tournament favourite struck by illness.
Alberta third Pat Simmons left midway through the morning game against the Territories with what Kevin Koe says may be a throat infection. Simmons played the full game at night against Manitoba.
Howard, Savill and Laing will play in the 1-2 playoff game for the fourth time in six years.
"I've always been on really good curling teams," Howard said. "Really, good consistent curling teams. A long week like this, you have to be consistent. If you're up and down like a toilet seat, you're not going to win or you're not going to get there."
Savill and Laing also played in the 1-2 game in 2002 when they where John Morris's front end.