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Canada in prime position to win Olympic team gold

Canadians build six-point advantage; OAR, Team USA sit second, third
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2010 Olympic gold medalists Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir secured the top spot in the short dance with 80.51 points, and their efforts helped Team Canada pick up 10 points. -Getty Images

Wins from Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir, and Meagan Duhamel and Eric Radford, gave Team Canada 45 points and a nearly insurmountable six-point lead over Olympic Athletes from Russia (OAR) after Day 2 of the team figure skating event at the 2018 Olympic Winter Games, held at Gangneung Ice Arena on Sunday.

The United States sits in bronze-medal position with 36 points, but a career-best free skate from Valentina Marchei and Ondřej Hotárek, combined with Carolina Kostner's second place finish in the ladies short program, put Italy just one point out of podium placement.

Four years ago in Sochi, Russia, Canadian skaters treated the debut team event as a bit of a warm-up to their individual events. Not all of the country's top-ranked athletes competed short programs and free skates, and they settled for a silver medal behind a resolute Russian team.

Not so in PyeongChang.

In a team laden with veterans, Duhamel and Radford -- as well as Patrick Chan -- who are competing at possibly their final eligible competition, are hungry to cap their careers with Olympic gold, and 2010 Olympic champions Virtue and Moir are determined to stand with their longtime teammates on the top step of the podium.

"The veteran leadership on this team is huge. We want to get them their gold medals," said Michael Slipchuk, high performance director of Skate Canada. "In 2014, we were looking at what was the best scenario for Patrick in his individual event. We were giving Meagan and Eric the chance to not be over-burdened."

"This time, everyone is prepared to skate twice, if the strategy calls for it," he added. "No one on the team said, 'I'm only going to do this part.' It's a great situation."

With the individual pairs short program just three days away, Duhamel and Radford put their 32- and 33-year-old bodies on the line with a technically-demanding free to Adele's "Hometown Glory" that included side-by-side triple lutzes, triple salchow combinations and a throw triple lutz, though Duhamel put her hands down on the landing of a throw quad salchow. Their 148.51 points easily defeated Marchei and Hotárek. Natalia Zabijako and Alexander Enbert, subbed in for top OAR pair Evgenia Tarasova and Vladimir Morozov, finished third.

"We were mentally prepared and physically trained, we knew the plan," Radford said. "But throughout yesterday and today, all of the other pairs boys were saying, 'You're doing a long program? Wow, good luck with that!' I was like, 'Am I supposed to be nervous?' … We will know at the end of the competition, maybe it was a mistake."

"I don't think it's going to be a mistake if we are standing on top of the podium tomorrow," Duhamel quickly interjected. "If we go into the (individual) pairs competition and something happens and we don't deliver our best performances, it will not be because of this team event. We are ready to do two more great performances and let the chips fall where they may."

Skating to music from the musical Ghost, Alexa Scimeca-Knierim and Chris Knierim placed fourth in the pairs free, adding two points to the U.S. team's overall tally. The couple landed side-by-side triple salchows and two triple throws, but did not attempt their signature move, the quadruple twist.

"We are going to be doing it in the free skate in the next event," Knierim said. "It would not have changed the results if we did it here. In our individual event, it can change the placement a lot heavier than at this event, because there are a lot more teams and a lot of teams are bunched up."

The pairs free skate, in which only the top five countries competed, capped a day of competition that also included the short dance and ladies short program, featuring all 10 nations that qualified for the team event.

Virtue and Moir captivated the crowd with an exhilarating rendition of their Latin rock routine that kicked off with a wild and feline mambo, morphed into a polished rumba and ended with an exhilarating samba, topped off by a spectacular closing lift. Their first-place finish added 10 points to Canada's total, but their 80.51 points was well off of their season's best, due primarily to a Level 2 rumba pattern.

"I think it says this was a tough panel," Moir said. "We felt that was an improved skate than what we've done, especially internationally in the fall. That's a good sign. This is the Olympic Games. We're looking for the harshest panel, especially when you are going to have the best field in four years."

The team's coach, Marie-France Dubreuil, was at a loss to explain the lower score.

"I'm questioning it, after a full season when you see the scores go down instead of up," she said. "I think the callers are trying to be extra strict and be fair, which is a good thing…I think it was a clean performance. I would need to go home and analyze everything. I can't talk for the callers right now."

With Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron of France sitting out the team event, the Canadians' biggest challenge came from U.S. world bronze medalists Maia Shibutani and Alex Shibutani. They, too, performed a sparkling short dance, but like the Canadians, received lower-than-usual levels. Still, their 75.46 points gained second place and nine points for the United States.

"I'm a little surprised by the score, because we have been accustomed to receiving stronger scores with skates that maybe weren't even as strong as today's," Alex said. "So we'll have to go back and see what the panel saw and how they determined their scores."

Ekaterina Bobrova and Dmitri Soloviev of OAR were third, with Italy's Anna Cappellini and Luca Lanotte fourth.

As expected, two-time world champion Evgenia Medvedeva led the way in the ladies' short, picking up 10 points for OAR with a near-perfect outing of her sensitive and lyrical program to Chopin's "Nocturne." The two-time world champion landed a strong triple flip-triple toe combination and gained Level 4 on her spins and steps to earn 81.06 points, a new international standard for ladies' short program scores.

More impactful to U.S. medal hopes was Kostner's strong and elegant second-place short, achieved despite an under rotation in her triple flip-triple toe combination. The 31-year-old skater, competing in her fourth Olympics, gained nine points for Italy, outplacing Canadian Kaetlyn Osmond and Satoko Miyahara of Japan, who were third and fourth, respectively.

For the fourth consecutive time on the international stage, Bradie Tennell skated a clean short program, hitting a solid triple lutz-triple toe and triple loop while gaining Level 4's on her spins and steps. Her program component scores, though, were far lower than the top four skaters', and her 68.94 points put her fifth.

In the mixed zone, reporters quizzed the 20-year-old U.S. champion, a relative newcomer on the international senior scene, about her unflappable demeanor.

"It felt like I was doing another program on a practice session," Tennell said. "I say to myself, 'You've done it a million times, this is a million and one.' I get butterflies right before the music starts, but then I kind of go on autopilot."

"I don't think I could have asked for a better first program at the Olympics," she added.

The team event concludes Monday, when U.S. silver medalist Mirai Nagasu and 2016 U.S. champion Adam Rippon compete in the ladies and men's free skates, while the Shibutanis will represent the U.S. in the free dance.