Figure skating team event preview: U.S., Russia among favorites

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SOCHI, Russia – History is made at the Olympics Thursday night in Sochi when figure skating begins its first-ever team event, consisting of ten teams all chasing after three medals. The U.S. factors into the gold-medal conversation, anchored by reigning world champion ice dancers Meryl Davis and Charlie White. Here, a comprehensive preview of the inaugural event.

How does it work?
In brief, the team event goes like this: skaters from all four disciplines (men’s, ladies, pairs and ice dance) skate both a short and long program with points being awaded for their placement in said events. Ten teams in total compete in the short program, with just the top five advancing to the free skate portion. Each team is allowed two substitutions between the short program and the free skate, meaning one man can skate in the men’s short, then another in the free skate. Substitutions can be made in ladies, pairs and/or ice dance, as well, as long as no more than two substitutions are made in total. For a comprehensive explanation of the team event and its proceeding, click here.

MORE: Understanding the team event

Who are the favorites?
Teams are ranked by an international system that tracks performances of skaters from throughout the skating season. Canada comes in as the top seed, followed by Russia, the U.S., Japan and Italy. The top four teams – Canada, Russia, the U.S. and Japan – are seen are the favorites for the three podium spots, with Italy having an outside shot at landing inside the top three.

Breaking it down
Canada has the upper hand because of strength in three out of the four disciplines: men’s, ice dance and pairs. The Canadians are led by reigning and three-time world champion Patrick Chan in men’s singles, followed closely by Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir, the ice dancers who won Olympic gold in Vancouver. Meagan Duhamel and Eric Radford, Canada’s best pairs team, were third at the World Championships in 2013.

Russia isn’t far behind, particularly thanks to a surging season from 15-year-old Yulia Lipnitskaya, who became the youngest Euopean Championships winner ever in January. She joins Yevgeny Plushenko in singles, the 31-year-old veteran who was selected as the lone man to represent Russian after a controversial process. The reigning pairs world champions, Tatiana Volosozhar and Maksim Trankov, bolster that strong line-up, which also includes Yekaterina Bobrova and Dimitry Soloviyev, bronze medalists at the World Championships in 2013.

And what of the U.S.? No doubt its leader is the ice dancing duo of Davis/White, who have won two out of the last three World Championships golds and have not earned anything less than gold in almost two years. The Americans will need to outdo rivals and training partners Virtue/Moir to help the U.S. beat out Canada, however. Jeremy Abbott will skate the short program in the men’s event, while fellow U.S. champs Marissa Castelli and Simon Shnapir will do so in pairs. The great mystery lies in the ladies portion of the event, where it is believed that two-time U.S. champ Ashley Wagner will skate the short program and 2014 winner Gracie Gold will do the free skate. The wildcard: 15-year-old Polina Edmunds, who won silver in Boston and is also seen as a free-skate option.

What the experts say
“It’s really going to between Russia, Canada and the U.S. for the medals,” said Johnny Weir, a two-time Olympian and analyst for NBC Sports. “It’ll just be a matter of are the American dancers so much better than the rest of the field.”

“At the Olympics, it’s such a different event from what you’re training for in the span of four years,” says fellow analyst Tara Lipinski, who won Olympic gold in 1998. “Your process of peaking has to change because this is a whole different competition before the individual events.”

What Lipinski is referring to is that figure skaters are now dealing with twice the amount of skating that they normally would at the Olympics, something Weir said he would have “hated” and Lipinski “loved” having to skate two different events at one Games had the team event existed when they competed.

“If Chan skates well, he’s far ahead of the Russian and U.S. men,” Weir adds. “For the ladies, Russia has a slight advantage there with the home ice and when you get to pairs it’s all about the Russians. So it’s a mixed bag. Everyone has their strengths, but it’s going to be whoever goes out and blows us away.”

But who’s skating?
The U.S. – as mentioned above – has named its men’s and pairs participants for the short programs and will wait to announce ladies and dance until Friday. “Whoever they send out for short or free skate I believe the outcome will be positive,” Lipinski said. “Selecting Ashley for the short could be a nice way for her to shake off all the hype from Nationals and settle into the ice. She has a very powerful short program that could set the tone well for her individual event. Gracie is a solid choice for both programs. It would be beneficial for her to use this opportunity to acclimate to Olympic competition especially since she doesn’t like surprises and excels when she can focus in and feel at home.”

The ten countries skating are: Canada, Russia, the U.S., Japan, Italy, France, China, Germany, Ukraine and Great Britain.

Schedule
The team event kicks off Thursday night in Sochi at 7:30 pm local time (10:30 am ET) and will be streamed in its entirety on NBCOlympics.com. The men’s short program kicks off the competition, with Plushenko skating fourth, Abbott fifth and Chan ninth. Pairs is set to get underway thereafter, around 9:10 local time. Ladies and ice dance will skate their short programs – along with pairs free skate – Saturday night.

For a full schedule of the team event, click here.

Lindsey Vonn wins 78th World Cup race (video)

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Lindsey Vonn‘s latest comeback victory, one that reinvigorated her Olympic medal hopes, came at the venue where her Olympic bid died four years ago.

Vonn overcame early season back and knee troubles to win her 78th World Cup race — and first in nearly 11 months — a super-G in Val d’Isere, France on Saturday. NBCSN will air coverage at 5 p.m. ET.

“I guess I’m not a washed-up old hag,” Vonn said, according to the U.S. Ski Team. “I think I proved myself, and karma definitely comes back around. I’ve got some good karma coming my way.”

She prevailed by .31 of a second over Italian Sofia Goggia and .39 over Norwegian Ragnhild Mowinckel. Vonn has won World Cups here six times before, earning cows as prizes.

Vonn put in a scare, nearly skiing out at the bottom of the course, but let out her usual victory screams in the finish area and grabbed a TV camera, repeating, “Yes!”

Full Results

Vonn is now eight victories shy of the record she covets — retired Swede Ingemar Stenmark‘s 86 career World Cup wins. She has said she hopes to break the record by the end of next season, after which she may retire.

First, her Olympic return in PyeongChang, four years after missing Sochi. The final straw came at this French resort in December 2013, where Vonn skied out with MCL and joint damage on top of a previous ACL tear.

Vonn’s PyeongChang medal hopes rode a roller coaster the last year.

A broken arm in a Nov. 10, 2016 crash. A win in her second race back in January, plus podiums at the world championships and at the Olympic venue in February and March.

Then a crash and a fall in two of her first three speed races this season. And last Saturday’s back injury and the images of being helped to walk with supporting poles in St. Moritz, Switzerland.

She withdrew from Sunday’s race — which was eventually canceled due to weather — flew to Austria and received therapy.

“It was mentally challenging to overcome that and be able to trust myself and push myself, even though I’m maybe not moving as well as I normally do,” Vonn said, adding that her back loosened up Saturday after the first few gates. “That’s been the biggest thing the last few weeks is just keep going, keep fighting, keep trying, keep picking yourself back up.

“I knew that the results would come eventually, but the important thing was just to continue to be tough.”

Vonn’s dad was waiting for her in his first visit to Val d’Isere.

“It was really cute when he was crying in the finish,” she said.

There was reason to doubt Vonn at age 33, given her extensive injury history. Only one woman has won a World Cup race at a more advanced age — Austrian Elisabeth Goergl in 2014.

Now, she has two months to stay healthy before the Olympic speed races, where she is a medal favorite in the downhill and super-G.

“I’m back on track,” she said. “[This win] proves what I already knew, that my skiing is good.”

First up is another World Cup super-G in Val d’Isere on Sunday (4:30 a.m. ET, Olympic Channel, NBCSports.com/live and the NBC Sports app).

World Cup overall leader Mikaela Shiffrin is skipping this weekend’s races to prepare for upcoming slaloms and giant slaloms.

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Val d’Isere Super-G
1. Lindsey Vonn (USA) — 1:04.86
2. Sofia Goggia (ITA) — +.31
3. Ragnhild Mowinckel (NOR) — +.39
8. Laurenne Ross (USA) — +.97
22. Alice McKennis (USA) — +1.62
24. Alice Merryweather (USA) — +2.03
34. Stacey Cook (USA) — +2.63
38. Breezy Johnson (USA) — +2.86
45. Julia Mancuso (USA) — +5.56
DNF. Jackie Wiles (USA)

Canada beats U.S. for third straight time in hockey rivalry

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SAN JOSE, Calif. (AP) — Haley Irwin and Sarah Nurse scored in the second period, sending Canada to a 3-1 win over the U.S. in the penultimate Olympic tuneup between the world powers in women’s hockey on Friday night.

Marie-Philip Poulin also scored for Canada, and Ann-Renee Desbiens made 25 saves.

Brianna Decker opened the scoring for the U.S. with a power-play goal early in the second. Alex Rigsby stopped 33 shots in defeat.

Poulin made it 3-1 with her goal 55 seconds into the third.

“I’m really happy with our process and where we are at as our team continues to grow,” Canada coach Laura Schuler said. “Also happy with our girls and their buy-in with what we’re trying to accomplish.”

It was the seventh of eight meetings between the rivals — and Canada’s third straight win — as they prepare for PyeongChang. They play again Sunday night in Edmonton, Alberta.

Canada leads the series 4-3.

“We just have to be better in the red zones — that’s the difference between winning and losing,” U.S. coach Robb Stauber said. “We’ll give some focus and energy to some things we think we can do better, and we’re going to go into Edmonton and see what that end result looks like.”

The last four Olympic gold medals in women’s hockey have gone to Canada, but the U.S. has won seven of the past eight world championships.

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