For the world's top figure skaters, this weekend's Grand Prix Final in Kitchener, Ontario, will be the last time for gauging the competition before the Olympics.
Will Sarah Hughes reprise the spoiler role of Tara Lipinski in Michelle Kwan's road to the gold? Can Kwan overcome ditching both her coach and choreographer so close to the Winter Games? How can Todd Eldredge, the five-time American champion, continue to limp along without a consistent quad in his program?
And those are just some of the questions facing the U.S. athletes.
Even as Hughes battles Kwan, she will have to keep an eye on Maria Butyrskaya, the Russian who beat Hughes twice on the Grand Prix circuit. Although she hasn't dazzled anyone yet, Cup of Russia winner Irina Slutskaya has the potential to start building momentum toward the medals podium in Salt Lake City.
The Final also will feature the first head-to-head competition between Russia's dominant men - Alexei Yagudin and Evgeny Plushenko - and the top two dance teams. Italy's Barbara Fusar-Poli and Maurizio Margaglio wrested the title last season from Marina Anissina and Gwendal Peizerat of France.
In pairs, it is Russians Elena Berezhnaya and Anton Sikharulidze, who have won the gold at two Grand Prix events this season, trying to keep Americans Kyoko Ina and John Zimmerman, winners of three Grand Prix silvers from moving up.
Grand old man
For the past three Olympics, Germany's Georg Hackl has been the immovable object on the top step of the luge singles podium.
Albertville 1992, gold. Lillehammer 1994, gold. Nagano 1998, gold. He even has a silver medal from 1988 to go with the matching set.
He's 35 and pudgy now, and his starts - never explosive - are, to put it politely, extremely deliberate. Still, the ex-soldier has the look of an athlete who wants to be the first to win four consecutive individual gold medals in the Winter Games.
At the World Cup event last weekend in Koenigssee, Germany, Hackl wowed the crowd with a first-place, two-race time of 1 minute, 35.931 seconds. Current world champion Armin Zoeggeler of Italy, who took the silver in Nagano, finished second in 1:36.050.
The top American slider, Tony Benshoof, was seventh.
Hackl hasn't won a World Cup overall title since 1990, but he served notice last month with a decisive win in Calgary that he is zeroing in on the podium's top step again.
When asked Tuesday how he deals with Hackl - short of slipping him a tranquilizer - Benshoof laughed.
"He certainly is difficult to beat," he said in a phone call from Igls, Austria, before the start of the fourth World Cup event. "When I race, I'm not focusing on one particular person. I'm just focusing on myself. I'm going to keep working on what I do best. ... Hopefully, that will be enough."
Hackl isn't the Americans' only German obstacle. With the exception of Zoeggeler, the top three finishers last weekend in men's, women's and doubles competitions were German.
Still, U.S. doubles slider Mark Grimmette, a 1998 Olympic bronze medalist, isn't running up the white flag.
"We're right on the edge of catching the Germans," he said. "We do have the speed to catch the Germans."
Derek Parra lost his edge but still managed a bronze medal Sunday in the men's 1,500-meter speedskating World Cup event in Calgary, Alberta.
The skater from San Bernadino, Calif., posted a time of 1:46.54, behind Norway's Adne Sondral (1:45.81) and Erben Wennemars of the Netherlands (1:46.19).
Baltimore's J. P. Shilling skated 1:48.84 to finish 17th. In the B Division 1,500, Chris Callis of Sudlersville finished eighth.
U.S. coach Bart Schouten said dirty ice during warm-ups caused Parra to lose the edge on his skates and cost him time.
In less than two days this week, U.S. skier Bode Miller, 24, went from being a "who he?" to a "wooo-weee."
The Franconia, N.H., resident won the giant slalom in Val d'Isere, France, on Sunday, then scooted across northern Italy to take the gold Monday night in the World Cup slalom event in Madonna diCampiglio.
His victories made him the first American to take consecutive technical races since Phil Mahre won three in a row in 1983. The back-to-back wins also were a first in gate competition in more than a year on the World Cup circuit.
Miller, in his sixth year on the U.S. team, started the season in late November with a silver-medal finish in the World Cup slalom event in Aspen, Colo.
His performances are turning heads on the circuit, especially because he is less than one year from blowing out a knee during the World Championships in Austria.
He also is getting praise for toning down his all-or-nothing approach, which often led to spills rather than winning times.
Miller's next World Cup race - a giant slalom event - is Sunday in Alta Badia, Italy.
Carrying a torch
Karl Malone, the Utah Jazz star and two-time Olympian, said he'd be happy to carry the torch as it makes its way to the opening ceremonies in Salt Lake City on Feb. 8, "if it's the right situation."
That would be, he told the Deseret News, inside Rice-Eccles Stadium on the torch's final approach to the caldron.
The wrong place? "I don't really have the desire of running it across the desert somewhere for a tenth of a mile," he said.