Virtue, Moir team to beat in ice dance at Helsinki worlds

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Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir returned from a two-year hiatus following their silver medal at the Sochi Olympics to post the two highest ice dance scores of all time, the Canadian power couple making it clear they're still among the best in the world.

They'll be chased at the World Figure Skating Championships by the most dominant nation.

The U.S. is sending a contingent to Helsinki this week led by reigning silver medalists Maia and Alex Shibutani that has every reason to believe it can knock Virtue and Moir from the top step of the podium. Madison Chock and Evan Bates are the reigning bronze medalists, while Madison Hubbell and Zach Donohue are coming off silver medals at Skate America and Trophee de France.

''We've competed against a lot of these teams for many years, so in some ways it hasn't changed,'' Virtue said. ''But what has changed is the depth in the field and the technical aspect.

''Skaters are executing extremely clean turns and technical callers are recognizing those,'' she said. ''The specific elements are much more pertinent. You can't miss. But there's also a little more freedom creatively, which is nice. We watched the world championships last year from the stands and we were awed at the level of ice dance in the world right now.''

Their worlds in Finland begin with the short dance Friday and conclude with the free dance Saturday, and are an important benchmark heading into next year's Winter Olympics.

Along with the Canadians and Americans, all eyes at Hartwall Arena will be on the pairing of Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron. The French team has captured the past two gold medals, and will be trying for the first three-peat in ice dance in two decades.

But in those previous victories, Papadakis and Cizeron didn't have Virtue and Moir in the field.

The 2010 Olympic gold medalists won gold at Skate Canada and the NHK Trophy last fall, then won their first Grand Prix Finals in December. In doing so, Virtue and Moir broke their own world record with 197.22 points, two points clear of what Americans Meryl Davis and Charlie White posted when they won gold at the 2014 Sochi Games.

Virtue and Moir credit much of their success to moving their training base to Montreal, and parting with longtime coach Marina Zoueva for Marie-France Dubreuil and Patrice Lauzon - who just happen to coach Papadakis and Cizeron, creating an intensely competitive camp.

''We're very lucky we train at a rink that has seven teams going to the world championships, and kind of using that motivation to keep us moving,'' Moir said. ''To be perfectly frank, this is probably the most prepared we've been for a world championships in our whole career.''

They aren't the only ones brimming with confidence.

The Shibutani siblings followed their U.S. title by taking silver at Four Continents behind Virtue and Moir, with the other two American teams nipping at their heels.

''We really elevated the way we competed and performed, and we're really happy with the way we showed our progress,'' Alex Shibutani said. ''I feel like because of our attention to detail and all the strength of the concepts we have for our program this year, that has us really excited.''

Alex Shibutani knows Virtue and Moir head to Helsinki as the favorites, and that results in Finland will be crucial leading into the Pyeongchang Games. But he also doesn't worry much about what other teams are doing.

''We respect our competitors and peers, but when it comes down to Maia and I, we don't really concern ourselves with the others,'' he said. ''Over the next several months, going into the Olympic Games, we're confident we can lay down great performances regardless of the competition.''

Beyond individual results, the world championships are important because they determine the number of slots each nation gets for the Olympics. If the standings of the top two teams from a nation add up to 13 or less, that country gets the maximum three spots for South Korea.

That's where the depth of the American contingent is especially important.

''The awareness of the Olympics coming up was really present with everyone at Four Continents, because it was the one-year out mark,'' Maia Shibutani said. ''But at the same time, our mindset is just to focus on the week in Finland. We're feeling very prepared.''