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Rosie DiManno: Virtue, Moir solidify Canadian lead in Olympic team figure skating

PYEONGCHANG, SOUTH KOREA—Good thing this figure skating is a frozen smile sport.

The rictus grins most stayed in place, in the kiss-’n’-cry, through the short ice dance segment of the team event on Sunday morning — albeit with some aside frowns, some mutterings, mostly by the Shibutani siblings from the U.S., and a couple of ice rolls.

Scott Moir offered one of those, quickly erased. Partner Tessa Virtue took a long swig on her water bottle, as if carefully arranging her facial features.

Never let the judges see you ticked off. Tears are okay, though. Tears are practically a required element.

The exceptionally talented, highly decorated duo — gold in Vancouver, silver in Sochi, returned to the competitive circuit with the express purpose to high-medalling in Pyeongchang — came out of the morning sessions here with a top score among the 10 teams contesting of 80.51.

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That racks up the team event score to 27, on top of Patrick Chan’s earlier third-place acquittal and second for the pairs team of Meagan Duhamel and Eric Radford. Four points up on the U.S., six points up on the Olympic Athletes from Russia, with Kaetlyn Osmond on tap to perform her short program before the pairs returned to centre stage at the Gangneung Ice Arena for their free skates — by which time the bottom five countries will be have been sent packing, at least from this somewhat cheesy Olympic menu add-on event.

While 80.51 was a fine result for the Canadians, it was more than two points off their season best with the Rolling Stones/Eagles/Santana arrangement that shows off their speed, dazzle and athleticism.

Virtue demurred on the dissatisfaction suggestion.

“I think any reaction on the scores this early in the competition is just us being perfectionists and wanting to figure out how we maximize sports.”

Didn’t get the top-ceiling levels they’d been drawing all season, for example.

“We still have a big job to do (in the team event), then again next week. We’re trying not to get too ahead of ourselves. But we’re really pleased with that performance. It’s tough starting out the Olympic Games. With a first skate out there the tendency is to try too hard, or maybe strangle the program a little bit. Our goal was to trust our training and let that shine through.”

They had most of their figure skating squad cheering from the special box seats available for the team event, and then squishing in next to the team as Moir and Virtue awaited their score.

“I think it does say that it’s a tough panel,” observed Moir of the marks that were lower for everybody across the board. “We thought that was an improved skate from what we’ve done, especially internationally. But that’s a good sign. I mean, this is the Olympic Games. You’re looking for the harshest panel, especially when you’re going to have the best field that we’ve had in four years.

“We have no reason to think that the judging isn’t fair. It has been for a long time in our sport.”

Still, the marks were startling to their coach, Marie-France Dubrueil.

“Yes, I’m questioning that too,” she said of the dropping levels. “Because after a full season, when you see the scores going down instead of up, it’s . . . yeah. I think the callers are being extra strict and fair, but I hope that from now to the individual event, everybody will train a little bit more and that will see the technical scores go up.”

Also surprising was that France did not send their top ice-dance team out on the ice, Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron, opting for their No. 2 couple.

Must be strategizing, or perhaps they didn’t want to prematurely throw out a comparison with the Gauls’ training partners, Virtue and Moir.

“Surprised, yes,” admitted Moir, “just because we’re clearly such different competitors. We were so eager to get on the ice as many times as possible. But we respect their strategy.

“This is their first time, to compete in an Olympic Games, so they have to approach it as they see fit.”