Zagreb, Croatia

As the close of the JGP season approaches, the race for the Final gets tighter. Mathematically, only two teams have secured a roster spot (Russia’s Elena Ilyinikh & Nikita Katsalapov and Italy’s Lorenza Alessandrini & Simone Vaturi), leaving six still available. The sixth stop in the series is Zagreb, Croatia’s capital city. Zagreb’s roster includes several teams who have excellent chances at qualifying for the Final.

Leading Team USA will be Maia Shibutani & Alex Shibutani. With one gold medal on the series this year already, the Shibutanis only need a top-four finish to ensure a spot in the Final. At the JGP in Lake Placid last month, they scored personal bests in all segments of the competition and won the event by 21.53 points. It will be interesting to see if they can match those scores when they do not have home ice advantage.

Also from the USA, Charlotte Lichtman & Dean Copely will be aiming to improve upon their eighth-place finish from the JGP in Hungary. Mistakes in the early segments of the competition in Budapest prevented them from scoring higher, but they came back with a strong Chaplin-themed free dance that was ranked third. Lichtman & Copely train with the Shibutanis in Canton, Michigan.

Canadians Kharis Ralph & Asher Hill went to last year’s JGP Final and have an excellent shot at making a repeat trip. They went head-to-head with the Shibutanis earlier this year at the JGP in Lake Placid; and while they could not match the Americans’ scores, they earned a personal best total score of their own, along with the silver medal. Another podium finish means that they will compete with the world’s best juniors in Tokyo in December.

Véronique de Beaumont-Boisvert & Sebastien Buron of Canada will compete in their second JGP event of this season. The team finished seventh in Poland after an illegal lift element cost them around 10 points in missed scores plus deductions, dropping them to 11th place in that segment. They have a great shot at improving upon that placement if they can skate without major mistakes in Zagreb.

Russia’s Tatiana Baturintseva & Ivan Volobuiev have an outside shot at qualifying for the Final. A fourth-place finish two weeks ago in Belarus means that they will need a gold or silver medal to guarantee a Final berth. Although their score in Minsk this year was a personal best, it was seven points lower than what Ralph & Hill scored in Lake Placid and nearly 30 points behind the Shibutanis’ mark.

Russia has been playing with roster changes for the last few events of the season, likely in efforts to qualify as many teams as possible. Victoria Sinitsina & Ruslan Zhiganshin have been substituted in to compete in Zagreb. They made a mark at their first JGP event this season with their fluorescent costumes, but they struggled with elements in Lake Placid and finished in fifth place. Qualifying for the Final would be a long shot for Sinitsina & Zhiganshin, because it would take a victory here, but they have an excellent opportunity to improve upon their scores this season if they skate well.

Nikki Georgiadis & Graham Hockley of Greece are returning to the junior circuit after competing as seniors two weeks ago in Oberstdorf, Germany. Their 15th-place finish at Nebelhorn Trophy earned Greece the first alternate spot for the 2010 Winter Olympic Games. Georgiadis & Hockley’s first JGP event of the season was in Lake Placid, where they finished 13th. The Argentine Tango, the CD in both Placid and Zagreb, is a strong one for the duo, and they scored nearly six points higher in that dance than the Tango Romantica at Nebelhorn.

Lesia Valadzenkava & Vitali Vakunov of Belarus, Karolina Prochazkova & Michal Ceska of the Czech Republic, Sarah Coward & Michael Coward of Great Britain, Alissandra Aronow & Aleksandras Pirogovas of Lithuania, and Maria Popkova & Viktor Kovalenko of Uzbekistan will all compete in their second JGP event of the season. Oksana Klimova & Sasha Palomaki of Finland and Juliane Haslinger & Tom Finke of Germany both competed this past week at the JGP in Dresden, Germany.

Sonja Pauli & Tobias Eisenbauer of Austria will begin their international season in Zagreb, as will the newly-re-formed team of Emese Laszlo & Sandor Nagy. Laszlo & Nagy, who represent Hungary, previously skated together from 1998 to 2005.

Zagreb will also mark the international debuts for the new teams of Kristina Tremasova & Dimitar Lichev of Bulgaria, Geraldine Bott & Neil Brown of France, and Irina Babchenko & Vitali Nikiforov of Ukraine.

The dancers will begin their competition on Thursday with the Argentine Tango.