With the first Grand Prix in the books, the Olympic season is truly a reality now. We had some high-profile performances at 2017 Rostelecom Cup over the weekend - from skaters who are bonafide Olympic podium contenders and from skaters who are fighting for their countries' Olympic spots.
Chen with the first win
The biggest matchup in Moscow was no doubt the one between Nathan Chen and Yuzuru Hanyu - Chen in his sophomore season and Hanyu in his Olympic title defense season. Neither skater had perfect practices during the week and struggling particularly with the new jumps in their repertoire (the loop for Chen and the lutz for Hanyu). But if I had to pick a winner based on practices alone, it would have been Hanyu - he was more consistent all around.
In the end, Chen ditched the loop in his free skate and delivered the difficult stuff the way we had expected him to over the past year. Hanyu made mistakes in both programs and took silver for the second time this season (Javier Fernandez won Autumn Classic over Hanyu last month). Both of them left base value points on the table, ~15 points for Chen and ~20 points for Hanyu, but it was Chen with the three-point win in their first head-to-head of the season.
As I discussed on the most recent episode of IceTalk on icenetwork, Hanyu has not necessarily been known as an early-season skater (see his silver-medal finishes at Skate Canada the past two seasons), so for Hanyu fans, this loss should not be something to fret too much about. For fans of Chen, knowing that his trajectory continues to trend upward since US Classic and Japan Open should very much be comforting. This is Nathan Chen at 60% - he's got more difficulty to add and more components to improve. And it's probably where he would like to be at this point in the season.
As an aside, Chen needs to (and probably has been trying to) figure out how to make sure his solo jump in the short program has proper steps going into it or risk not getting the kinds of GOEs he should get, even if he lands it perfectly. Earlier in the season, it looked like he was going to do the lutz as his solo jump, which is more conducive to connecting steps with his entrance. But at Rostelecom, he switched back to the flip as the solo. Even if he added an extra back-three his flip entry, it would make more of a case for connecting steps. Something to watch for as the season continues. (That was a long aside ...)
That said, the silver lining for Hanyu here? He eked out the lutz in his free skate in his first competition attempt - Chen even started off his press conference by congratulating Hanyu on it. It has to give Hanyu the confidence that he will need to continue attempting it this season.
Other Olympic faves grab gold
The other winners were as expected - Evgenia Medvedeva in ladies, Evgenia Tarasova/Vladimir Morozov in pairs, and Maia Shibutani/Alex Shibutani in dance. Medvedeva continues to solidify her status as the heavy favorite for gold at PyeongChang. She took an uncharacteristic fall at the end of her free skate on a double axel, but that was not nearly enough to take her off the top of the podium.
But for me, defending Olympic bronze medalist Carolina Kostner made the strongest statement in Moscow with two clean programs that brought her the silver. Both programs are artistically breathtaking but technically lackluster, as we have seen from her during the past two seasons. That said, she is a triple flip-triple toe and triple lutz away from adding 7-8 points to her total score, which would put her a lot closer to Medvedeva. You wonder if or when she will take the risk this season in search for another Olympic medal.
Olympic spots on the line this season
Rostelecom Cup also gave us another chapter in some of the battles for the coveted spots in PyeongChang. For the Americans, the big one here was the second Mariah Bell-Mirai Nagasu head-to-head. After Nagasu took the first one at US Classic, Bell brought herself back into the conversation with a win over Nagasu in Moscow.
For Nagasu, perhaps overexcitement about a successful triple axel (it was later called underrotated) made the rest of her short program a complete disaster, and she had to dig herself out of a hole in her free skate. She could have unraveled after that, but fought back with a solid free skate. Two poor programs in Moscow could have undone the progress she has made over the past couple of seasons in her confidence. Three months from now, we may look back at her redeeming free skate as a turning point for her.
Elsewhere, Wakaba Higuchi's bronze continues to provide her with momentum for one of the two Japanese spots. Mae Berenice Meite, in the mix for the sole French ladies spot, skated solidly and throws the ball to Laurine Lecavelier, who competes next week at Skate Canada. With the Russian men, neither Mikhail Kolyada nor Dmitri Aliev were free from mistakes, but particularly for Aliev, his short program showing gives him a strong platform to get onto the Russian team in his first senior season out.
In the fight for the third Russian spot in pairs, Kristina Astakhova/Alexei Rogonov delivered two strong performances and awaits the showing of their chief opponents for that spot, Natalia Zabiiako/Alexander Enbert, next week at Skate Canada.
If you haven't figured it out yet, this season is all about momentum and trajectory. Get ready for a rollercoaster ride for the next five weeks on the Grand Prix. Skate Canada next!