Worlds preview: Ice dance teams look to fill void left by Davis/White, Virtue/Moir

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Ice dancing will crown new world champions this coming weekend at the World Figure Skating Championships in Saitama, Japan, for the first time since 2011.

The discipline that has been dominated by two teams since before the Vancouver Games will be without both of those duos, Americans Meryl Davis and Charlie White as well as Canadians Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir sitting out the competition to assess their respective futures.

So who will step up? That remains to be seen.

Yelena Ilinykh and Nikita Katsalapov were the breakthrough ice dancing stars at the Sochi Games last month, the Russians winning their first medal on the world stage with a bronze at the Olympics.

More: Full Worlds schedule and streaming times | Entry list

They headline a field that includes a mix of veterans and up-and-comers.

The U.S., without the experienced team of Davis/White, will look to Madison Chock and Evan Bates (eighth in Sochi) and Maia and Alex Shibutani (ninth) for solid results. A third team, Alexa Aldridge and Daniel Eaton, will also compete.

“Our Olympic experience both on the ice and off the ice was a culmination of a ten-year chapter in our lives,” Alex Shibutani said in a phone interview with NBCSports.com last week. “It was difficult to come back and corral that energy at first, but we felt that our skating at the Olympics was really strong. We’ve been training really, really well the last few weeks.”

To maintain the three spots at the World Championships in 2015, Chock/Bates and the Shibutanis will need to combine for 13th overall. (Aldridge/Eaton are not considered to factor into that equation.)

“We never really go into a competition seeking placement or put too much emphasis on where we want to be,” Alex noted. “We just want to skate the best we have all year.”

The field is wide open without the top two teams. French veterans Nathalie Pechalat and Fabian Bourzat will look to recapture their bronze medal from Worlds in 2012. Pechalat/Bourzat were fourth in Sochi and have said this will be their final competition.

The field also includes Yekaterina Bobrova and Dimitry Soloviyev of Russia (fifth in Sochi), Anna Cappellini and Luca Lanotte (sixth) and Canadians Kaitlyn Weaver and Andrew Poje.

Other than Pechalat/Bourzat, Bobrova/Soloviyev and the Shibutanis are the only teams to have won a medal at Worlds in the past, the Russians taking bronze last year and the Americans doing so in 2011.

“We’re in such a good place going into this Worlds,” Maia said. “We feel like we’ve reached a whole other level since Sochi, which is really exciting for us.”

More: World Figure Skating Championships men’s preview | Pairs preview

The Shibutanis train at the same rink as Davis/White and Virtue/Moir under the tutelage of coach Marina Zoueva. The Shibutanis said Zoueva’s focus has been solely on them since returning from Russia, a welcomed change in their routine. Davis/White are participating in “Dancing With the Stars” this season.

But what will Worlds be like without their team leaders and the Olympic champions?

“We’ve traveled with Meryl and Charlie more than any other team, so we have a very close relationship with them,” said the Michigan-based Alex. “There was always a great dynamic for us training with the top two teams in the world over the past six years because the skating level was so high.”

Without the home crowd to boost them, it could be a race to gold for the Russian teams of Ilinykh/Katsalapov and Bobrova/Soloviyev, with Pechalat/Bourzat and Cappellini/Lanotte nipping at their skates. Cappellini/Lanotte won the European Championships in January.

Yet a “favorite” stamp should go to Ilinykh/Katsalapov, whose dark interpretation of “Swan Lake” brought the house down in Sochi and could bring them gold in Saitama.

Icenetwork.com will provide live coverage for subscribers. The short dance is set for Thursday night (9:50 p.m. ET) and the free dance will take place Friday (11:30 p.m. ET). NBC will air a World Championships recap show April 13 from 3-6 p.m. ET.

More: Davis/White appear on ‘Ellen’ to talk ‘DWTS,’ 2018

Despite blade trouble, Nathan Chen leads men at Skate America

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Nathan Chen leads the men’s field at Skate America after tallying 104.12 points, a new personal best, on Friday night.

During the six-minute warm-up before the final group of skaters, Chen could be seen conferring with his coach, Rafael Arutunian, about his blade. He explained on the Olympic Channel: Home of Team USA broadcast that during the warm-up, Arutunian manipulated the blade to fix the edge. They plan on playing with it again so it’s better for Saturday’s free skate.

“There’s a lot of points that I could have gotten last year and I’m making sure I take care of them this year,” Chen said of his personal best, according to U.S. Figure Skating. “The score is still not that close to some of the top men currently, but that’s something that I know is attainable and it’s something I’m going to work toward.”

Arutunian’s other pupil in the men’s field, Adam Rippon, is in second place behind Chen with a personal best of his own – 89.04 points. Sergei Voronov of Russia sits in third place after the short with 87.51 points.

The third American in the field, Ross Miner, popped a triple Axel and didn’t receive any credit for the element. He tallied 71.59 points and sits in eighth place heading into the free.

The free skate will determine which skaters earn a berth to the Grand Prix Final in Japan in two weeks. Chen, despite being a favorite for the Skate America title, can finish anywhere among the top four for a berth to the Final. Voronov can also finish in the top four to make it to the Final. Rippon needs to finish anywhere on the podium.

Plus, with reigning Olympic gold medalist Yuzuru Hanyu and his training partner Javier Fernandez (a two-time world champion himself) out of the Grand Prix Final, the podium there is wide open. Patrick Chan, a three-time world champion and the Sochi silver medalist, won’t be at the Grand Prix Final either.

MORE: Skate America TV Schedule

Earlier Friday, in the pairs field, Canadians Meagan Duhamel and Eric Radford scored 75.37 to lead the field after the short program.

China’s Yu Xiaoyu and Zhang Hao followed for second with 73.67 points. Aliona Savchenko and Bruno Massot, who represent Germany, earned 72.55 points for third place after the short program. All three teams have a chance to qualify for the exclusive Grand Prix Final should the podium stand is after Saturday’s free skate. Even with a shakeup among the top three, it is likely that they will all qualify.

The top American team was married couple Alexa Scimeca Knierim and Chris Knierim, who scored 64.27 and are fourth after the short. Haven Denney and Brandon Frazier tallied 63.04 (sixth) and Deanna Stellato and Nathan Bartholomay are eighth with 57.18 points.

MORE: Bruno Massot earns German citizenship

Massot gets German citizenship, path cleared for Pyeongchang

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LAKE PLACID, N.Y. (AP) — Bruno Massot learned Thursday he has passed his German citizenship test, clearing the way for him and partner Aliona Savchenko to compete at the Olympics in Pyeongchang.

Massot was born in Caen, France, and qualified for the 2014 Sochi Games on the French team, but he was held out of the Olympics because partner Daria Popova did not gain French citizenship in time.

He has since partnered with Savchenko, a Sochi participant, and been working to become a German citizen. This was his third time taking the German citizenship test, and the final time he would be able to qualify for citizenship in time for the Olympics.

“It’s really different,” Massot told The Associated Press, “because I don’t have this now anymore in my head, this question like, `I will be blocked again, or not?”‘

Massot’s naturalization ceremony will take place next Wednesday. Massot and Savchenko are in Lake Placid competing at Skate America this week.

MORE: Skate America preview, TV schedule