Maksim Kovtun

Javier Fernandez

Grand Prix Final schedule, previews

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U.S. ice dancer Evan Bates calls it “the most important competition we’ve ever done,” speaking for himself and his partner.

It is the Grand Prix Final, the most elite figure skating competition. The Olympics and the World Championships earn more prestige, but the Grand Prix Final is more exclusive.

The top six skaters per discipline over the six-event Grand Prix series this fall were invited to this week’s event in Barcelona.

The constantly changing figure skating landscape will be apparent in Spain, a nation with no history of Olympic medalists in the sport.

Of the 12 Sochi Olympic (non-team event) medalists, only two made it to the Grand Prix Final — men’s champion Yuzuru Hanyu and pairs silver medalists Ksenia Stolbova and Fedor Klimov (plus ice dance bronze medalist Yelena Ilinykh with a different partner).

The two-time Olympian Bates, with partner Madison Chock, make up the U.S.’ biggest gold-medal hope with Olympic champions Meryl Davis and Charlie White not competing this season. That’s why Bates holds this weekend’s event in such high regard.

Here’s the schedule (all times ET):

Thursday
Pairs short program — 2:15 p.m.
Women’s short program — 3:30 p.m.

Friday
Ice dance short dance — 1:45 p.m.
Men’s short program — 3 p.m.

Saturday
Pairs free skate — 10 a.m.
Women’s free skate — 11:25 a.m.
Ice dance free dance — 1:25 p.m.
Men’s free skate — 2:45 p.m.

Icenetwork.com will stream all the sessions to subscribers live. NBC will air coverage Sunday (4-6 p.m.).

Here are event-by-event previews:

Men

The men’s competition will be the most anticipated because it includes Spain’s only entrant — Javier Fernandez.

Fernandez, 23, is the two-time reigning World Championships bronze medalist. He trains in Canada under two-time Olympic silver medalist Brian Orser but is very passionate about Spain.

In Sochi, Fernandez fell from third place after the short program to fourth overall and said he felt sad he couldn’t bring a medal home for his country. Spaniards have won two Winter Olympic medals, both in Alpine skiing, the last in 1992.

Fernandez grew up in Madrid, training on an ice rink that is now a restaurant. Fernandez believes there are nine rinks in all of Spain, with about half in Madrid.

“To fight against sports like soccer or tennis or cycling [in Spain], those kinds of sports have been there for a while,” Fernandez said. “It’s kind of more difficult to make people change their minds [about] other sports than they’re used to seeing, but we’re getting there.”

There is no clear favorite among the six men at the Grand Prix Final. Fernandez has been the most consistent over the calendar year and posted the second-best overall score in the Grand Prix season.

Japan’s Tatsuki Machida, the reigning World silver medalist, posted the highest score this season in winning Skate America in October. But Machida scored more than 30 fewer points at his more recent Grand Prix skate in November.

Russia’s Maksim Kovtun was the only man to win both of his Grand Prix series starts this season. Kovtun, who also raps, won last season’s Russian Championships but was passed over for Russia’s lone Olympic singles spot for 2006 Olympic champion Yevgeny Plushenko. He finished fourth at Worlds, just behind Machida and Fernandez.

Not to be forgotten is reigning Olympic, World and Grand Prix Final champion Yuzuru Hanyu of Japan. Hanyu snuck into the Grand Prix Final over American Jason Brown by .15 of a point at the last Grand Prix series event. Hanyu, also coached by Orser, is a wild card given a head injury sustained in warming up for the Cup of China free skate on Nov. 8.

Women

Just like last year, it’s four Russians, one Japanese and American Ashley Wagner.

Wagner, seventh at the Olympics and March’s World Championships, will be fortunate to repeat her bronze medal from last year’s Grand Prix Final, if the just-concluded Grand Prix series is any indication.

Three of the four Russians — Yelena RadionovaElizaveta Tuktamysheva and Anna Pogorilaya — scored higher than Wagner this season. The fourth, Yulia Lipnitskaya, was the star of the Sochi Olympic team event and won silver at the World Championships.

None of the other Olympic or World medalists competed this Grand Prix season, including Russian Olympic champion Adelina Sotnikova, out with a torn ankle ligament.

Wagner also lost Olympic teammate Gracie Gold, who qualified for Barcelona but pulled out last week with a small stress fracture in her foot.

Wagner, 23, is more than four years older than the other five women in Barcelona.

Of the Russians, Radionova and Tuktamysheva impressed the most in the Grand Prix series. Radionova, the Skate America and Trophee Bompard winner, was too young for the Sochi Olympics. Tuktamysheva, the Cup of China winner, was 10th at last season’s Russian Championships.

Ice Dance

Meryl Davis and Charlie White won the last five Grand Prix Finals. The U.S. streak could very well continue, even with the Olympic champions sitting out this season.

That’s because Madison Chock and Evan Bates were the top qualifiers for Barcelona, winning both of their Grand Prix series starts.

They prevailed in the absence of not only Davis and White but also the entire top five from Sochi this Grand Prix season.

“The throne is vacant,” Bates said. “We’re going to try to take it.”

Chock and Bates were eighth in Sochi and fifth at the World Championships in March. Canada’s Kaitlyn Weaver and Andrew Poje, who were seventh in Sochi and second at Worlds, qualified second behind Chock and Bates into the Grand Prix Final.

The other U.S. Olympic ice dance couple, siblings Maia and Alex Shibutani, qualified fourth into Barcelona. It’s their first Grand Prix Final appearance in three years.

Pairs

Like ice dance, the pairs landscape looked different this season.

Olympic champions Tatyana Volosozhar and Maksim Trankov are out due to Trankov’s shoulder injury.

World champions Aliona Savchenko and Robin Szolkowy are out due to Szolkowy’s retirement.

Russians Ksenia Stolbova and Fedor Klimov, who won silver behind those pairs at the Olympics and Worlds, qualified first into the Grand Prix Final. Right behind them were Canadians Meagan Duhamel and Eric Radford, the World bronze medalists.

The comeback story is that of Russians Yuko Kavaguti and Aleksander Smirnov, who missed last season due to Smirnov’s knee injury. They were fourth at the 2010 Olympics.

There’s also 2006 Olympic silver medalist Zhang Hao, looking for his first Grand Prix Final medal in six years. Zhang, formerly partnered with Zhang Dan (no relation), was eighth in Sochi with new partner Peng Cheng.

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Maksim Kovtun rallies to win Trophee Bompard (video); Grand Prix Final picture

Maksim Kovtun
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Russian figure skater Maksim Kovtun rallied from sixth place after the short program to win Trophee Bompard on Saturday and qualify for the Grand Prix Final in Barcelona in three weeks.

Kovtun landed two quadruple jumps in his free skate, totaling 243.35 points overall. He passed five men who scored higher in the short program. Four of those five fell in their free skates, unlike Kovtun.

Kovtun’s sixth-to-first jump was the biggest men’s winning rally in a Grand Prix event since Swiss Stephane Lambiel took 2006 Skate Canada after placing seventh in the short program.

On Saturday, Japan’s Tatsuki Machida took second with 237.74, followed by Kazakh Denis Ten with 236.38. The top American was Adam Rippon in fifth.

Kovtun, 19, won last season’s Russian Championships but was passed over for Russia’s lone Olympic spot for then-three-time Olympic medalist Yevgeny Plushenko.

Kovtun is the only man to win multiple events through five of six Grand Prix competitions this season. He, Machida and Spain’s Javier Fernandez have qualified for the Grand Prix Final with one event left next week, NHK Trophy.

The Grand Prix Final is the biggest annual international competition outside the World Championships, taking the top six skaters/couples per discipline over the six-event Grand Prix series.

It’s unlikely that a U.S. man will scoop one of those last three spots in the Grand Prix Final (scroll down for scenarios). A U.S. man didn’t qualify for either of the last two Grand Prix Finals. At no other point in the 20-year history of the series have U.S. men gone back-to-back years shut out of the Grand Prix Final.

NBC and NBC Sports Live Extra will air Trophee Bompard coverage Sunday from 4-6 p.m. ET.

Ashley Wagner’s Grand Prix Final chances after Trophee Bompard bronze

Trophee Bompard men’s results
1. Maksim Kovtun (RUS) — 243.35
2. Tatsuki Machida (JPN) — 237.74
3. Denis Ten (KAZ) — 236.28
5. Adam Rippon (USA) — 225.42
7. Richard Dornbush (USA) — 219.27
10. Doug Razzano (USA) — 194.24

Leaders in Grand Prix season
1. Tatsuki Machida (JPN) — 269.09 (Skate America)
2. Javier Fernandez (ESP) — 265.01 (Rostelecom Cup)
3. Takahito Mura (JPN) — 255.81 (Skate Canada)
4. Sergey Voronov (RUS) — 252 (Rostelecom Cup)
5. Javier Fernandez (ESP) — 244.87 (Skate Canada)
6. Maksim Kovtun (RUS) — 243.35 (Trophee Bompard)
7. Maksim Kovtun (RUS) — 243.34 (Cup of China)
8. Michal Brezina (CZE) — 241.23 (Rostelecom Cup)
9. Misha Ge (UZB) — 238.05 (Rostelecom Cup)
10. Tatsuki Machida (JPN) — 237.74 (Trophee Bompard)
11. Yuzuru Hanyu (JPN) — 237.55 (Cup of China)
Olympic silver medalist Patrick Chan not competing in Grand Prixs.

U.S. leaders in Grand Prix season
1. Jason Brown — 235.56 (Rostelecom Cup)
2. Jason Brown — 234.17 (Skate America)
3. Max Aaron — 231.77 (Skate Canada)
4. Stephen Carriere — 231.67 (Skate Canada)
5. Richard Dornbush — 226.73 (Cup of China)
6. Adam Rippon — 225.42 (Trophee Bompard)
7. Jeremy Abbott — 219.33 (Skate America)

Grand Prix Final qualifiers
1. Maksim Kovtun (RUS)
2. Javier Fernandez (ESP)
3. Tatsuki Machida (JPN)
4. TBD
5. TBD
6. TBD

Fighting for last three Grand Prix Final spots
1. Takahito Mura (JPN)
2. Yuzuru Hanyu (JPN)
3. Sergey Voronov (RUS)
4. Jason Brown (USA)
5. Jeremy Abbott (USA)

Mura, Hanyu and Voronov will make the Grand Prix Final if they finish in the top three at NHK Trophy next week.

Jason Brown is currently in fourth place in the Grand Prix standings and not competing at NHK Trophy. His best shot at the Grand Prix Final is if Hanyu withdraws before NHK Trophy due to his Cup of China injuries, or if Voronov finishes fifth or worse at NHK Trophy.

Jeremy Abbott can make the Grand Prix Final if he wins NHK Trophy and gets some help from Mura, Hanyu or Voronov performing poorly, or if he finishes second and gets a lot of help from Mura, Hanyu and Voronov.

Yuzuru Hanyu finishes second at Cup of China after bloody warm-up collision (video)

Yuzuru Hanyu
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Olympic champion Yuzuru Hanyu collided with another skater in the Cup of China free skate warm-up, bled, competed with his head wrapped, fell five times in his performance and finished in second place Saturday.

Hanyu, in his first top-level competition since winning the World Championships in March, and China’s Han Yan collided near center ice at the Shanghai venue while preparing for their free skate.

Hanyu lay on the ice for several seconds, blood streaming down his chin, before two officials with medical uniforms on reached him.

Once off the ice, China’s Han lay motionless while being tended to just behind the boards. Han performed his free skate 45 minutes later and finished sixth.

Hanyu was taken farther off the ice and checked out while sitting down. He returned to warm up and appeared disoriented, pointing to his head multiple times.

“He was immediately determined he wanted to compete, and for me, I wanted to make sure he was healthy enough,” said Hanyu’s coach, two-time Olympic silver medalist Brian Orser, according to The Associated Press. “I told him, ‘This is not the time to be a hero. You have to take care of yourself.”’

Hanyu skated about 50 minutes later, fell five times in his “Phantom of the Opera” performance and finished in second place, just as he was after the short program Friday.

Hanyu had to be held up by Orser after he stepped off the ice following his free skate.

“You’ve got to keep breathing, OK?” Orser told him. “Hang onto the boards.”

Russian Maksim Kovtun won with 243.34 points. Hanyu scored 237.55. American Richard Dornbush took third with 226.73.

Hanyu bawled in the kiss and cry area after his score came up, appearing overjoyed.

“I know that tomorrow he’s going to feel like he was hit by a car,” Orser said later, according to the AP. “Both of these boys are going to feel awful.”

Hanyu was attempting be the third different Japanese man to win in the first three Grand Prix events of the season, a feat never done by any nation.

In the women’s competition, Elizaveta Tuktamysheva became the third different Russian woman to win in the first three events this season. That is unprecedented.

Tuktamysheva overtook short program leader Yulia Lipnitskaya, the World silver medalist, after Lipnitskaya fell on a triple Salchow and popped two other jumps in her free skate.

Tuktamysheva, who was 10th at last season’s Russian Championships, stayed on her skates Saturday and landed six triple jumps.

Polina Edmunds, the youngest U.S. Olympic figure skater since Tara Lipinski in 1998, rebounded from a seventh-place short program with the second-best free skate behind Tuktamysheva.

Edmunds landed seven triple jumps and finished in fourth place in her Grand Prix debut.

In ice dance, U.S. Olympic siblings Maia and Alex Shibutani finished second after leading following the short dance Friday.

The Grand Prix season continues next week with the Rostelecom Cup, the fourth of six events before the Grand Prix Final.

NBC and NBC Sports Live Extra will air Cup of China coverage Sunday from 4-6 p.m. ET.

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Cup of China men’s results
1. Maksim Kovtun (RUS) — 243.34
2. Yuzuru Hanyu (JPN) — 237.55
3. Richard Dornbush (USA) — 226.73

Leaders in Grand Prix season
1. Tatsuki Machida (JPN) — 269.09 (Skate America)
2. Takahito Mura (JPN) — 255.81 (Skate Canada)
3. Javier Fernandez (ESP) — 244.87 (Skate Canada)
4. Maksim Kovtun (RUS) — 243.34 (Cup of China)
5. Yuzuru Hanyu (JPN) — 237.55 (Cup of China)
6. Jason Brown (USA) — 234.17 (Skate America)
7. Nam Nguyen (CAN) — 232.24 (Skate America)
Olympic silver medalist Patrick Chan not competing in Grand Prixs.

U.S. men’s leaders in Grand Prix season
1. Jason Brown — 234.17 (Skate America)
2. Max Aaron — 231.77 (Skate Canada)
3. Stephen Carriere — 231.67 (Skate Canada)
4. Richard Dornbush — 226.73 (Cup of China)
5. Jeremy Abbott — 219.33 (Skate America)
6. Douglas Razzano — 204.48 (Skate America)
7. Adam Rippon — 201.92 (Skate Canada)

Cup of China women’s results
1. Elizaveta Tuktamysheva (RUS) — 196.6
2. Yulia Lipnitskaya (RUS) — 173.57
3. Kanako Murakami (JPN) — 169.39
4. Polina Edmunds (USA) — 161.27
9. Christina Gao (USA) — 125.04
10. Ashley Cain (USA) — 124.81

Leaders in Grand Prix season
1. Elizaveta Tuktamysheva (RUS) — 196.6 (Cup of China)
2. Elena Radionova (RUS) — 195.47 (Skate America)
3. Anna Pogorilaya (RUS) — 191.81 (Skate Canada)
4. Elizaveta Tuktamysheva (RUS) — 189.62 (Skate America)
5. Ashley Wagner (USA) — 186 (Skate Canada)
6. Satoko Miyahara (JPN) — 181.75 (Skate Canada)
7. Gracie Gold (USA) — 179.38 (Skate America)
Olympic champion Adelina Sotnikova to debut at NHK Trophy in three weeks. 

U.S. leaders in Grand Prix season
1. Ashley Wagner — 186 (Skate Canada)
2. Gracie Gold — 179.38 (Skate America)
3. Samantha Cesario — 174.58 (Skate America)
4. Courtney Hicks — 174.51 (Skate Canada)
5. Polina Edmunds — 161.27 (Cup of China)
6. Mirai Nagasu — 158.21 (Skate America)