Two berths on the U.S. Olympic men's figure skating team are the goal for the 19 skaters returning to the TD Garden ice Sunday for the free-skate portion of the 2014 U.S. Figure Skating Championships.
Jeremy Abbott is the clear leader after a spotless performance in Friday’s short program, leaving a cluster of skaters more than likely vying for second place on the medal podium. Behind him are a collection of surprises and pre-event contenders, including reigning national champion Max Aaron, now in fourth.
Friday's opening session featured standing ovations, collective groans and all things in between, which should provide an interesting pretext for Sunday's finale.
Read on for a look at who to watch, what to expect and who will ultimately wear the red, white and blue at the Sochi Games.
Sunday's free skate is the climactic half of the two-pronged men's competition, following after Friday night's short program.
The free skate lasts a maximum of 4 minutes, 30 seconds—as compared to the 2 minutes, 50 seconds allotted for the short program—and weighs equally in the judges' overall scoring but requires more technical elements.
Medals will be awarded to the top skaters at the conclusion of the free skate, with the gold and silver medalists virtually assured a spot on the U.S. Olympic team next month in Sochi, Russia.
The U.S. men will send just two skaters to the Games for the first time in 20 years, thanks to a lack of high placements in recent international competitions. It is possible, though unlikely, for someone other than the top two medalists to be named as Olympians.
Competition involving the 19 skaters who performed Friday will run from 12:50 to 4:50 p.m. ET on Sunday. The U.S. Olympic team announcement is scheduled for approximately 7:15 p.m. ET, according to NBC.
NBC will broadcast live from the TD Garden in Boston from 3 to 5 p.m. ET.
The competition got going Friday night in Boston and saw at least half of the 19-skater field either wobble, stumble or flat out fall during their routines.
It wasn't all Keystone Kops, however, as four of the final six skaters performed well enough to reach the top six and put themselves within striking distance of the coveted Olympic team berths.
Here are the top six skaters who will compete last in Sunday's free skate program.
Jeremy Abbott, 99.86
The 28-year-old from Colorado sat and watched the collective mediocrity from his perch as skater No. 15 of the night, then went out and established himself as the clear man to beat come Sunday night with the highest short program score ever recorded in a U.S. national championship event.
Richard Dornbush, 92.04
Were it not for Abbott's late-night mastery, the skate put out there by the 22-year-old Californian in the early stages of the competition would have been the headline-grabber. The long, lithe youngster made it look effortless while racking up his personal-best short program numbers.
Jason Brown, 87.47
The pony-tailed Prince fan revved up his outfit, complete with "The Artist's" former symbol on the back, then toned down the choreography while choosing to concentrate on doing the basic elements and doing them well. It'll probably take an all-or-nothing free skate to earn the Olympic slot.
Max Aaron, 86.95
The defending national champion worked the crowd with up-tempo music and nailed his lone attempt at a quad, but wasn't rewarded by the judges to the extent that his other three high-end colleagues were. He may have the most climbing potential if he turns in another error-free effort Sunday.
Joshua Farris, 78.37
Ice Network color analyst Michael Weiss wasn't stingy with the descriptive phases for many of Friday's competitors, but the best he could come up with for the reigning world junior champion was "solid." "It was unfortunate for him that Jeremy Abbott skated the program of a lifetime," Weiss said.
Adam Rippon, 77.58
The most consistent U.S. skater of the season during the Grand Prix events leading up to the pre-Olympic audition, Rippon eschewed a quad for a triple lutz, then hit the ice hard upon failing to land a triple axel moments later. He'll need a wave of opponent stumbles to near an Olympic berth.
My Record, Your Record:
Richard Dornbush set the crowd ablaze with a silky smooth, effortless skate that yielded a 92.07 score that was a record for a short program in a U.S. championship event.
For about 90 minutes and 12 skaters, that is. The record was quickly erased when Jeremy Abbott, the lone competitor who represented the country at the 2010 Games in Vancouver, trumped Dornbush to the tune of 99.86 and all but ensured himself a trip to Russia next month.
A Spread Out Field:
The uneven performance of the field on Friday created an interesting scoring dynamic going into Sunday, with Abbott way ahead and Dornbush leading a close cluster of three with Jason Brown and Max Aaron vying for runner-up credentials.
Pre-event favorites Joshua Farris and Adam Rippon need both a pristine effort and a mistake or two from the guys at the top.
To Jump or Not to Jump:
No fewer than nine skaters had quadruple jumps planned for their short programs on Friday, but more so than a parade of high-flyers, the competition's opening night became a comedy of errors.
Grant Hochstein, Adam Rippon, Robert Prezpioski, David Raad, Timothy Dolensky and Stephen Carriere each went all the way to the ice on falls, and several more competitors incurred deductions from the judges thanks either to stumbles on footwork or when hands came in contact with the ice after landings.
It's not often that a reigning national champion could be considered a dark-horse contender, but that's pretty much all that's left to high-flying Max Aaron thanks to his fourth-place finish in Friday's opener.
Just 21 years old and a former national junior champion, Aaron was energetic and intense, but hardly transcendent, while earning an 86.95 score that placed him behind Jeremy Abbott, Richard Dornbush and Jason Brown heading into Sunday's free skate.
That said, based on the feedback from the crowd and the promise of explosive athleticism, he shows the biggest propensity for a huge number on Sunday, which could get him to at least the No. 2 spot if less-tested opposition like Dornbush and Brown falter even slightly.
He was a 2010 national champion and represented the country in the Olympics in Vancouver that winter, but veteran Jeremy Abbott's subsequent four years had instead been marked by rampant inconsistency.
Abbott was fourth, first and third in the intervening three national championship events and finished eighth in the 2012 world championships, but he looked every bit the gold-medal contender during Friday's events as he coolly nailed a quad and a triple to open the routine and never looked back.
Ice Network analyst Michael Weiss quickly chimed in with, "He looks on," very early in the program, and his postmortem after Abbott's fist-pumping climax was just as prescient.
"Unbelievable," he said. "Jeremy has the ability to capture an audience even without big jumps, and when he hits them it's just perfect. If you skate like that, you have a real chance to medal at the Olympics."
It'll take a big run from a trailing competitor, alongside a less-than-stellar effort from the front-runner to keep him from the top step on Sunday. It says here that won't happen, and Abbott will be spending February overseas with American flags adorning his outfits.
Expected total combined score: 189.86
Jeremy Abbott, Gold Medal
He's seven-plus points ahead of his nearest pursuer heading into Sunday and nearly 13 points up on the man, Max Aaron, who entered the competition as the reigning national champion but instead finds himself in fourth place. Based on Friday's near perfection, Abbott's simply in the zone for Sochi.
Max Aaron, Silver Medal
If the potential to dazzle counts for anything, Aaron has plenty going for him come Sunday. He was technically sound on Friday and made no noticeable errors, but also left the impression that there were plenty more fireworks left in his arsenal. If they come out in full force, he'll get silver.
Richard Dornbush, Bronze Medal
The clear surprise of Friday night, Dornbush skated second, posted a U.S.-record score and watched it stand up until Abbott skated the short program of his life from the No. 15 position. Problem is, it's hard to fathom the 22-year-old Californian has two straight record-worthy outings in him.
Jason Brown, Pewter Medal
The flamboyant teenager reeled in the dramatics and took a strong third Friday after performing ninth in the 19-skater rotation. If Abbott maintains, Aaron rises and Dornbush falls, chances are Brown will find himself close to the position he's in now by Sunday's end.
Four guys. Two spots. Extra drama for Sunday.
Thanks to Jeremy Abbott's spectacular effort and the commanding lead it provided, not to mention his status as a former Olympian, it'd take a colossal blunder for him to tumble all the way from Friday's lead to a non-medal position on Sunday. In other words, don't count on it.
As for the other spot, it's possible that if Max Aaron skates very well to move from fourth to third, and second-place Friday finisher Richard Dornbush looks less dominant than he did in the short, that the powers-that-be will decide to make Aaron the second man in Russia after all.
That'll be the main source of intrigue on Sunday, though if Dornbush skates anywhere near as well as he did and maintains no worse than second, it'll be remarkably difficult to consider unseating him.
Jason Brown is still a factor, too, but it's hard to imagine him staving off Aaron and leapfrogging Dornbush.
In the end, go with the pre-event chalk and make reservations for a pair of A's.
Projected 2014 Olympians: Jeremy Abbott and Max Aaron.