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What to Watch at this weekend’s Figure Skating Worlds

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The Figure Skating World Championships kick off in London, Ontario Wednesday, with the pairs short program first thing in the morning, and the men’s short program later in the afternoon. Here’s a quick rundown of who and what you should be watching this weekend.

American upstarts: Taking a cue from The Cutting Edge, hockey player turned U.S. figure skating champ Max Aaron will highlight the men’s team with at least a few quad jumps in his repertoire. Ross Miner is also a contender after finishing second to Aaron in January for his third straight podium finish at nationals. The two will need to combine for thirteenth place or better to assure the U.S. team a third spot in Sochi.

U.S. Women’s rivalry: Ashley Wagner may have won nationals for the second straight year, but Gracie Gold might be the American to beat after she earned the second highest free skate score in U.S. Championship history, roaring back from ninth to second after a poor short program. She’ll need to be solid on both nights to prove she has what it takes to compete against the world’s best in Sochi next year.

America’s Hat: Speaking of rivalries, things are heating up between Ice Dancing teams Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir of Canada and Meryl Davis and Charlie White from the U.S. The Canadians already have an Olympic gold, two world titles, and home ice advantage this weekend, but the five-time U.S. champs are constantly on their heels and would love to even things up with a second world title.

Sochi Stories: Russia’s chances at a medal aren’t looking good at next year’s hometown Games after Yevgeny Plushenko was sidelined with back surgery. He says he’ll return in time for the Olympics, but for now the country’s hopes rest on the skates of 17-year-old Maxim Kovtun, who only has a year at the senior level under his belt. Russia’s best chance at a Sochi medal is probably in pairs.

Vancouver Queen: Yuna Kim took a couple years off after winning gold at the 2010 Games, but she’s already won two events this season and has Australian star Hugh Jackman rooting for her, so she’s likely to be a favorite again this weekend. Aside from the American ladies, Kim’s best competition will come from Vancouver silver medalist Mao Asada and defending world champ Carolina Kostner of Italy.

Canadian King: Patrick Chan has already won back-to-back world titles, and plans to make it three-in-a-row on his home Canadian ice. If he can pull it off, he’ll be the first since Russian star Alexei Yagudin more than a decade ago, but Quad King Javier Fernandez of Spain (who also trains in Canada) and 2012 worlds silver medalist Daisuke Takahashi should have something to say about it.

U.S. Figure Skating Championships men’s preview

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The stage is set for Nathan Chen in Kansas City this week.

The 17-year-old is arguably the biggest favorite of any senior discipline at the U.S. Championships, looking to become the youngest U.S. men’s champion since 1966.

Chen, who boasts six quadruple jumps between his two programs, broke out at the Grand Prix Final in December by taking a silver medal. That propelled him to the top of U.S. men’s skating.

He outscored the reigning Olympic and world champions in the free skate at the Grand Prix Final in the best U.S. men’s international performance since Evan Lysacek won Olympic gold in 2010.

Chen’s chances for gold this week were boosted by the withdrawal of 2016 U.S. champion and training partner Adam Rippon due to a broken foot. And by 2015 U.S. champion Jason Brown‘s recent right leg injury.

Brown is still in the field, though, as is 2013 U.S. champion Max Aaron. Chen, Brown and Aaron are vying for two spots on the team for the world championships in two months in Helsinki.

“Those are the very clear top three,” NBC Olympics analyst Johnny Weir said. “It’ll take a disaster or a performance of a lifetime for anybody else to get into that top three.”

Friday
Men’s short program — 8:30 p.m.-midnight ET, Universal HD
Sunday
Men’s free skate — 4-6 p.m., NBC

MORE: U.S. Championships broadcast schedule
PREVIEWS: Men | Women | Pairs | Ice Dance

Nathan Chen
Age: 17
Hometown: Salt Lake City
2016 Grand Prix Final silver medalist
2016 U.S. bronze medalist
Two-time U.S. junior and novice champion

Chen came back strong this season following the first major injury of his career suffered at least year’s nationals exhibition. Hip surgery kept Chen from making his world championships debut in 2016, but he’s now poised to lead the U.S. men into Helsinki, trying to earn three Olympic berths. First, Chen goes for his first senior national title.

Tara Lipinski’s Take: Nathan is the star of the show this year. The type of talent he has doesn’t come along every day. He possibly could be on the Olympic podium next year with the technical skating he’s giving us. Artistically, his component scores, if you look at him from last nationals to this nationals, he’s a different skater. He may not be [Olympic champion Yuzuru] Hanyu yet, but he has all the makings of a great, artistic male skater. I think he’s already giving us enough, to be honest.

Jason Brown
Age: 22
Hometown: Colorado Springs
2015 U.S. champion
Fourth at 2015 World Championships

Don’t forget that Brown was one spot off the podium at the 2015 Worlds. It’s been mostly a nightmare since for the 2014 Olympic sensation. Brown missed the 2016 U.S. Championships with a back strain and revealed last week that he was off the ice for the last two weeks of December with a stress fracture in his right fibula. Brown is the only man in this week’s field who has been within 40 points of Chen’s best total score this season.

Johnny Weir’s Take: Now that Adam Rippon is out, the artistic challenger, if he can land a quad, is Jason Brown. He’s won the national title before. He knows what it takes and what that kind of pressure feels like. That is an advantage he has over Nathan Chen. If he lands the quad and creates that artistic moment, he is very favored in the U.S. by the judging panel. He will need a quad toe loop if he’s going to hold off Nathan Chen.

Max Aaron
Age: 24
Hometown: Colorado Springs
2013 U.S. champion
2015 Skate America champion

Aaron may be the best pure athlete in the field. He has finished in the top four at nationals each of the last four years, but it’ll probably take top two this week to earn a world championships spot. He’ll likely have to beat the injured Brown.

Johnny Weir’s Take: He has great skating skills. He’s a wonderful athlete. But I don’t think his free program especially is strong enough choreographically to challenge either Nathan Chen or Jason Brown.

Grant Hochstein
Age: 26
Hometown: Artesia, Calif.
Fourth at 2016 U.S. Championships
10th at 2016 World Championships

Hochstein was placed on the 2016 World Championships team after Chen withdrew due to that hip injury. He finished a respectable 10th in his worlds debut but dropped to 11th in each of his fall Grand Prix starts. Hochstein ranks seventh this season among men in the U.S. Championships field.

Tim Dolensky
Age: 24
Hometown: Kennesaw, Ga.
Seventh at 2016 U.S. Championships

Dolensky had his best U.S. Championships finish last season and ranks behind only Chen, Brown, Rippon and Aaron among U.S. skaters’ top scores this season.

Vincent Zhou
Age: 16
Hometown: Riverside, Calif.
2013 U.S. junior champion
Fifth at 2016 World Junior Championships

Zhou would be a bigger threat if he hadn’t pulled out of his last event in December with a leg injury. Still, he has the jumping firepower, when he lands them, to contend for the podium when healthy.

MORE: Wagner, Chen share training ice, favorite status at nationals

U.S. Figure Skating Championships ice dance preview

CHICAGO, IL - OCTOBER 23:  Maia Shibutani and Alex Shibutani of the U.S. perform at the Smucker's Skating Spectacular at 2016 Progressive Skate America at Sears Centre Arena on October 23, 2016 in Chicago, Illinois.  (Photo by Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images)
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There is little doubt who are the top three U.S. ice dance couples. The mystery is the order they’ll finish at the U.S. Championships this week.

In its deepest figure skating discipline, the U.S. put three in the top six at the 2016 World Championships. All of them return to Kansas City for nationals — Maia and Alex ShibutaniMadison Chock and Evan Bates and Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue.

The U.S. ice dance order of finish used to be very predictable — Meryl Davis and Charlie White followed by Chock and Bates, then the Shibutani siblings and then Hubbell and Donohue.

When Davis and White took a break after winning Sochi Olympic gold (still on that break), everybody moved up one place. But things started changing last season.

The Shibutanis jumped past Chock and Bates at the 2016 U.S. Championships, then earned silver at worlds, one spot ahead of Chock and Bates.

Then last month, Hubbell and Donohue edged past Chock and Bates at the Grand Prix Final by .27 of a point. Will the tide continue to shift in Kansas City?

“Dance is always so predictable, but it’s getting less and less each year,” NBC Olympics analyst Tara Lipinski said.

MORE: U.S. Championships broadcast schedule
PREVIEWS: Men | Women | Pairs | Ice Dance

Friday
Short dance — 6-8 p.m. ET, NBCSN
Saturday
Pairs free skate; free dance — 3-6 p.m. ET, NBC

Maia Shibutani/Alex Shibutani
Ages: 22/25
Hometown: Canton, Mich.
2016 World silver medalists
2011 World bronze medalists
2016 U.S. champions

The Shibutani siblings went five years between world championships podiums, a jaw-dropping achievement in ice dance. They’re chasing the top Canadian and French couples internationally, but they haven’t been outscored by a U.S. couple since December 2015.

Johnny Weir’s Take: In ice dancing, there aren’t a lot of successful stories that include a brother and a sister. It’s definitely a testament to them and their personalities that they are so accepted all over the world, given the fact that ice dance is so political, they are brother and sister and they can’t do romantic themes, which is something that is so prevalent in ice dance.

Madison Chock/Evan Bates
Ages: 24/27
Hometown: Novi, Mich.
2015 World silver medalists
2016 World bronze medalists
2015 U.S. champions

Chock and Bates have trickled down since leading the 2015 World Championships after the short dance. First, the French Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron snatched the world title. Then the Shibutanis topped them for the 2016 U.S. title. Then Hubbell and Donohue relegated Chock and Bates to last place at the Grand Prix Final last month.

Johnny Weir’s Take: Tara and I disagree on this, but Chock and Bates are still trying to find themselves musically. I think that their programs this year, they don’t feel quite them. They feel a little bit more rehearsed than a natural, flowing emotion. But, technically, they are the strongest team in the U.S. Their skills are sublime, their edge quality and their lifts.

Madison Hubbell/Zachary Donohue
Ages: 25/26
Hometown: Montreal
Three-time U.S. bronze medalists
2016 Skate America silver medalists

Can they beat one of the two 2016 World medalists again? If not, Hubbell and Donohue will be hoping more than anybody else that the Olympic champions Davis and White do not return to competition. The U.S. can qualify no more than three ice dance couples for the 2018 Olympics.

Johnny Weir’s Take: They really believe their artistry. They are so emotional when they skate. They take it so seriously. Technically, they have big hurdles to cross, looking at Chock and Bates and the Shibutanis. But the artistic side, they can create a moment when you’re least expecting it.

Kaitlin Hawayek/Jean-Luc Baker
Ages: 20/23
Hometown: Bloomfield Hills, Mich.
2014 World junior champions

Hard to believe the best junior couple in the world three years ago has little chance of making the senior worlds, but that’s how strong U.S. ice dance is at the moment. However, Hawayek and Baker’s top score this season is only 2.23 points fewer than the best from Hubbell and Donohue.

Elliana Pogrebinsky/Alex Benoit
Ages: 18/21
Hometown: Novi, Mich.
Fourth at 2016 World Junior Championships

They finished third at junior nationals the last two years but rank No. 5 among U.S. senior scores this season, their first on the senior scene. A couple to watch for the future.

MORE: The latest on future thoughts for Davis, White