Maia, Alex Shibutani
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Maia, Alex Shibutani can bring ice dance title back to U.S.; Worlds preview

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BOSTON — The best U.S. hope for a World Figure Skating Championships medal this week comes in ice dance, and Tara Lipinski and Johnny Weir believe it could be gold.

Madison Chock and Evan Bates have been the strongest U.S. figure skaters across all disciplines internationally the last two seasons, with Olympic champions Meryl Davis and Charlie White sitting out competition since Sochi.

Chock and Bates improved from eighth at the Sochi Olympics to fifth at the March 2014 World Championships to earn silver at the 2015 Worlds. They also earned silver medals at the last two Grand Prix Finals, the most prestigious annual competition outside of Worlds.

But another U.S. couple has been better the last two months — siblings Maia and Alex Shibutani. The Shibutanis upset Chock and Bates for their first U.S. title in January and then did so again at the Four Continents Championships in February.

“Since then, everything in our skating has just gotten better,” Maia said last week. “We’re stronger than we’ve ever been before.”

Before this year, the Shibutanis hadn’t outscored Chock and Bates since the 2012 U.S. Championships.

“Last season there was a big stretch of land between the two [couples],” said Weir, an NBC Olympics analyst and two-time Olympian. “It’s pretty unpredictable.”

That said, Weir believes the Shibutanis could be the biggest beneficiary of home-ice advantage in Boston, where their parents met as Harvard musicians and the older Alex was born during Larry Bird‘s final season with the Celtics.

“Ice dancing really is somewhat of a different beast than the rest of the disciplines in skating,” Weir said. “A lot of it has to do with opinion because so many of the top teams are so evenly matched on the technical side.”

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The Shibutanis’ free dance is set to Coldplay, which will be familiar music to many at TD Garden. The group’s tour manager saw the siblings’ performance from the U.S. Championships and invited Maia and Alex to a July 30 tour stop in Foxborough, Mass.

The Shibutanis earned Worlds bronze in their first senior season in 2011, when Maia was 16, but haven’t been better than fifth since and were ninth at the Sochi Olympics.

Now in their 12th season together, the 24-year-old Alex attributed the revival to entering the “the adult phase” of their careers.

“This is the perfect storm for the Shibs,” Lipinski said. “They have a connection to Boston. They’re skating to this magical Coldplay free dance, which is getting raves, which will only heighten the anticipation in the arena. With an audience backing you, there’s no greater setup for you to sweep in and win the gold medal.”

Weir agreed.

“And I think also that the politics of figure skating, a lot of people are going to want to see an American World champion at an American World Championships,” he said.

The Shibutanis hope to become the first siblings to win a World title in pairs or ice dance in 25 years.

“Simply being a brother and sister and skating together really limits the things they’re able to do successfully artistically, but I think that their programs this year are so strong,” Weir said.

But reputation means plenty in figure skating, especially in ice dance. The 2014 World champions from Italy, 2015 World champions from France and the 2014 and 2015 Grand Prix Final champions from Canada are all coming to Boston.

France’s Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron stunned Chock and Bates in the free dance last year, overtaking the U.S. short-program leaders to become the youngest World champions in ice dance in 40 years.

“It was really the first time in recent history that I saw that the judging of ice dance really did reward the best performance,” Weir said. “It wasn’t necessarily who had the best track record or who had the best coaches or if you’re coming from the right country.”

Papadakis suffered a concussion in an August practice fall, but they returned to win the French Nationals in December and the European Championships in January, again coming from behind in the free dance at Europeans.

“My gut is saying the French will still come out on top,” Lipinski said, “but I feel like this is the Shibs’ year.”

Here are Lipinski and Weir’s medal predictions from last week:

Lipinski
Gold: Papadakis/Cizeron (FRA)
Silver: Shibutani/Shibutani (USA)
Bronze: Chock/Bates (USA) or Weaver/Poje (CAN)

Weir
Gold: Shibutani/Shibutani (USA)*
Silver: Papadakis/Cizeron (FRA)
Bronze: Chock/Bates (USA)

*”Handicap-wise, it’s probably Papadakis/Cizeron, but it’s figure skating and anything can change in the moment when the scores come up. I think that [the Shibutanis] are capable of creating that moment.”

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Shelby Houlihan shatters American 5000m record

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Shelby Houlihan chopped 10.52 seconds off her own American 5000m record, clocking 14:23.92 at a Bowerman Track Club intrasquad meet in Portland, Ore., on Friday night.

Houlihan, who was 11th in the Rio Olympic 5000m, has in this Olympic cycle improved to become one of the greatest female distance runners in U.S. history.

She first broke Shannon Rowbury‘s American record in the 5000m by 4.47 seconds in 2018. In 2019, she broke Rowbury’s American record in the 1500m by 1.3 seconds in finishing fourth at the world championships in 3:54.99.

On Friday, Houlihan and second-place Karissa Schweizer both went under the American record. Schweizer, 24 and three years younger than Houlihan, clocked 14:26.34, staying with Houlihan until the winner’s 61-second final lap.

“I knew Karissa was going to try to come up on me and take the lead. She does that every time,” Houlihan told USATF.tv. “I had decided I was not going to let that happen.”

Houlihan improved from 41st to 12th on the world’s all-time 5000m list, 12.77 seconds behind Ethiopian Tirunesh Dibaba‘s world record.

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Can T.J. Oshie, other established Olympic hockey stars hold on for 2022?

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T.J. Oshie will be 35 years old during the next Winter Olympics. Jonathan Quick will be 36. Now that the NHL is one key step closer to returning to the Winter Games, the question surfaces: which 2014 Olympians will have a difficult time returning to rosters in 2022?

Oshie was the last of the 14 forwards chosen for the U.S. Olympic team for Sochi, beating out Bobby Ryan and Brandon Saad, in part for his shootout prowess.

In group play against Russia, Oshie was memorably tapped by U.S. head coach Dan Bylsma six times in a shootout, including all five in the sudden-death rounds. Oshie beat Sergei Bobrovsky four times, including the game winner.

“After I went out for my third attempt, I figured I was going to keep going,” Oshie said, according to USA Hockey. “Each time I would look up to see what [Bylsma] had to say, and he would just give me a nod every time. I kind of started laughing toward shot five and six because it was getting kind of ridiculous.”

Oshie became known as “T.J. Sochi” on social media. President Barack Obama congratulated him on Twitter. The U.S. eventually lost to Canada in the semifinals and Finland in the bronze-medal game.

When the NHL chose not to send its players to the PyeongChang Winter Games, it may have spelled the end of Oshie’s Olympic career.

Consider that the oldest forward on the 2014 U.S. Olympic team was 29, six years younger than Oshie will be come 2022. A recent Olympic roster prediction from The Hockey Writers put Oshie in the “Just Missed Out” list.

NBC Sports NHL analyst Pierre McGuire has Oshie among the finalists for the last forward spots in his early U.S. roster prediction.

“I wouldn’t discount T.J. Oshie because shootout is still part of it,” McGuire said. “He still has his shootout moves, even though he’s not getting any younger.”

Quick, the unused third goalie in 2010, played 305 out of 365 minutes in net for the U.S. in Sochi. He was coming off a Stanley Cup in 2012 and en route to another one in 2014.

Since, he was sidelined by a knee injury that required surgery. He remains the Los Angeles Kings’ No. 1 goalie, which almost automatically puts an American in the Olympic roster discussion these days.

“Somebody like Jonathan definitely merits consideration just because of his achievement level over time, but I think he’d be the first person to tell you injuries have definitely affected him,” McGuire said of Quick, looking to become the second-oldest U.S. goalie to play in the Olympics after Tom Barrasso in 2002. “It’s not going to be easy for him.”

The U.S. could bypass Quick for three Olympic rookies in 2022. Connor Hellebuyck, John Gibson and Ben Bishop have superior save percentages and goals-against averages and more games played than Quick since the start of the 2018-19 season.

A wild card is Spencer Knight, the 19-year-old No. 1 from the world junior championships who last year became the highest-drafted goalie since 2010 (No. 13 to the Florida Panthers). Knight would break defenseman Bryan Berard‘s record as the youngest U.S. Olympic hockey player in the NHL era.

The Canadian roster has traditionally been deeper than the U.S. The talent is overwhelming at center, led by Sidney CrosbyConnor McDavidPatrice Bergeron and Nathan MacKinnon. The Canadians must get creative if the likes of veterans Jonathan Toews and John Tavares will join them in Beijing.

Toews, then 21, was the best forward at the 2010 Vancouver Games and Canada’s only one on the all-tournament team. While Toews’ last NHL All-Star selection was in 2017, his last two seasons have been his best in terms of points per game since 2011.

“The one thing that Canada is very good at, they do it extremely well, they select players that fit roles,” McGuire said, noting Mike Richards shifting to the wing during the 2010 Olympics. “When you look at the overwhelming depth that Canada has, that’s going to be the thing that’s going that’s going to be very interesting to watch to see how it plays out at center.”

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