SHEFFIELD, England - Tatiana Volosozhar and Maxim Trankov took advantage of the late withdrawal of their main rivals to head a Russian 1-2-3 after the short program of the pairs competition at the European figure skating championships on Wednesday.
Moving to the brink of a first major title, Volosozhar and Trankov scored a season-best 72.80 points in a near-flawless routine to the chilled strains of Evanescence's "Bring Me Back To Life."
They hold a lead of nearly six points ahead of Thursday's free skate and won't have a better chance to capture gold, with the event robbed of the defending champions.
Aliona Savchenko and Robin Szolkowy of Germany were widely regarded as the favourites coming into a competition they have won four of the past five years, but a flare-up of an old injury to Savchenko led to them pulling out at the last minute.
"It is a shame," the 28-year-old Trankov said. "We wanted to compete against them. It is a little demoralizing for us. We had to refocus without the motivation of possibly beating the three-time world champions."
Their disappointment didn't show out on the ice.
In a fluid, energetic program, their only error came on the throw triple flip when the 25-year-old Volosozhar — formerly of Ukraine and dressed head to toe in black, like her partner — touched the ice with both hands to correct her landing.
They still managed to beat their previous best this season by 1.23 points, topping both technical marks and program components after nailing the triple toe loop and executing the triple Lutz twist lift to perfection in a three-minute package of elegance at the half-full Motorpoint Arena.
"We are pleased with the score but I am not completely satisfied with my throw triple flip — I made an error," said Volosozhar, who put the mistake down to being thrown "too high" by Trankov. "Overall it was an OK skate."
It was also a successful day for Russia in the ice dance, with Ekaterina Bobrova and Dmitri Soloviev in the lead by 0.17 points from Nathalie Pechalat and Fabian Bourzat — the defending champions from France — after the short dance.
The free dance is on Friday.
In the pair's competition, Vera Bazarova and Yuri Larionov, the current Russian champions and bronze medallists at last year's Europeans, placed second on 66.89 points. Ksenia Stolbova and Fedor Klimov were third on 58.66.
Despite not even the slightest hint of a wobble, both pairs still failed to overhaul Volosozhar and Trankov, who attempted the tougher tricks.
"We won't relax now, there is another day to come," said Larionov, who described his display as "scratchy" despite the judges' high scores. "We have another job to do, which is to show what we have worked on and give a strong performance."
Italian pair Stefania Berton and Ondrej Hotarek were fourth on 54.38, just ahead of Mayline Hausch and Daniel Wende of Germany with 54.03.
The loss of Savchenko and Szolkowy came as a blow on the opening day of the finals.
In performing a pair spin in practice only hours before the start of the short program, Savchenko aggravated an injury to her left thigh that she hurt in a fall on a throw jump in a training session in Germany on Jan. 12.
"The risk is too high to aggravate the injury further," coach Ingo Steuer said. "It was a difficult decision for us."
It leaves the path clear for a Russian sweep, which would be a welcome boost to a country hosting the 2014 Olympics in Sochi.
"I'm very proud to see all my fellow countrymen in the top three positions," Trankov said. "We will all be fighting hard tomorrow and hope the placements will be the same."
Trankov acknowledged that the absence of Savchenko and Szolkowy left a sour taste.
"It's not going to be a full victory for sure," he said.
Bobrova and Soloviev, who won silver at last year's Europeans, wowed the judges with their performance to the beats of the samba and rhumba, which comprises part of this year's Latin American theme in the ice dance.
They scored 65.06 to snatch the lead over Pechalat and Bourzat, whose total received whistles and jeers from spectators who felt the veteran pair's routine deserved more.
"The score is just a little lower than our season's best and is much higher than at the Grand Prix final and the Rostelecom Cup, so we are pleased with it," Bobrova said.
Russian pair Ekaterina Riazanova and Ilia Tkachenko were third with 61.34.