by Melanie Hoyt | Photos by Robin Ritoss

The 2016-17 ISU Grand Prix Series will conclude this week in Japan at NHK Trophy. NHK Trophy is the sixth event, and several teams on the roster will be aiming to make the Grand Prix Final, which will take place in two weeks in Marseille, France. Furthermore, this is the long-awaited matchup between two-time and reigning world champions Gabriella Papadakis & Guillaume Cizeron and their new training partners on the comeback trail, 2010 Olympic champions Tessa Virtue & Scott Moir.

With the highest scores posted this season, Papadakis & Cizeron of France have, perhaps, the edge in the race to the top of the podium. They scored 193.50 two weeks ago at Trophée de France, which is only about a point off their ISU record from last season’s World Championships. (It should be noted that this is due, in part, to the growth in base value for the technical elements in the short dance.) The French champions looked to be on top of their game in Paris, and with a similar or better performance in Japan, they could certainly secure a victory. Looking past this week, though, they only need a top-three finish to punch their ticket to the Final.

Canadians Virtue & Moir have had about a month since their narrow Skate Canada victory to prepare for the big matchup in Japan. At their home Grand Prix, they faltered once again on the twizzles, still their trouble element after a couple of years off, and were second in the free dance, but managed to hang on to a slim lead overall. They will likely need to be in top form to take gold this time around. Like the French, Virtue & Moir also only need a podium finish in order to qualify for the Final.

Head to head, it could be very close between Papadakis & Cizeron and Virtue & Moir. Even with mistakes, Virtue & Moir scored 189.06 at Skate Canada, just three-and-a-half points behind what Papadakis & Cizeron scored at Trophée de France. Both teams tend to receive such high program components scores that the difference between the two, if both skate relatively cleanly, will have to be levels on step sequences and/or grades of execution on the elements.

Mathematically, two additional teams have chances to qualify to skate in Marseille. With fourth-place finishes earlier on the Series, Anna Cappellini & Luca Lanotte or Victoria Sinitina & Nikita Katsalapov could sneak into the Final if they win this week. If that were to happen, and Papadakis & Cizeron and Virtue & Moir rounded out the podium in either order, Madison Hubbell & Zachary Donohue would get pushed down to first alternate.

Cappellini & Lanotte of Italy, another past world champion team in this battle royale, had the disadvantage of a tough field at Skate Canada and finished off the podium at a Grand Prix event for the first time since 2010. They still scored over 180 points, though, and should definitely be considered medal contenders this week.

Russia’s Sinitsina & Katsalapov will be skating in back-to-back events; they earned a score of 171.94 at Cup of China last week. They do have a shot at a medal this week, but it would take a reversal of what happened last week, when they slipped firmly behind compatriots Alexandra Stepanova & Ivan Bukin.

Representing Team USA, Kaitlin Hawayek & Jean-Luc Baker should be aiming for the top five. They were sixth at Skate Canada with a total of 162.19 points and after a rough season last year, they are back on the upswing with an almost universally-admired free dance to “Liebestraum.” NHK Trophy has been a great event for them in the past; they won a bronze medal here in 2014, their first year on the senior circuit.

Two more teams are also making the direct trip from Cup of China to NHK Trophy. Poland’s Natalia Kaliszek & Maksym Spodyriev were fifth last week and could repeat that placement again this week. Their reliable elements and charming programs have them on an upward trajectory this season. Last week, they scored 150.78.

Americans Anastasia Cannuscio & Colin McManus were seventh last week, earning 141.17 points. Levels were a problem for them in the short dance and they were buried in seventh place. Although they skated much better in the free dance, the judges may have held back a little, and their placement held.

Marie-Jade Lauriault & Romain Le Gac will once again travel with and compete against their teammates and training partners, Papadakis & Cizeron. The strategy worked well for them in France two weeks ago, where they picked up a sixth-place finish, a personal best free dance, and 150.07 points in their Grand Prix debut.

Rounding out the roster are two representatives of the Japanese home team, Kana Muramoto & Chris Reed and Emi Hirai & Marien de la Asuncion. Muramoto & Reed were seventh at this event last year and eighth earlier this season at Skate America, where they set a new ISU personal best in the free dance and earned 147.37 points.

Hirai & de la Asuncion’s only Grand Prix experience has been as host picks at NHK Trophy the past two years. They finished eighth both times. This year, they made their season debut at Finlandia Trophy, where they earned 102.03 points and a ninth-place finish.

The short dance will be held on Saturday afternoon, and the free dance is set for Sunday afternoon, before the exhibition gala.