Battle for the Final intensifies at NHK Trophy

by Melanie Hoyt

nhklogoThis week, the Grand Prix of Figure Skating climbs past its mid-series hump, arriving in Sapporo, Japan, for NHK Trophy. Since NHK Trophy is the fourth event of the series, most of the top teams have already competed, and now the battle for six berths to the Grand Prix Final will intensify. This competition features two teams that have already won a silver medal this year, and the battle for gold will be exciting, as none of the competitors have ever won a Grand Prix title.

With a week of training since their silver medal at Skate Canada, Canada’s Kaitlyn Weaver & Andrew Poje may have the slight edge as gold medal favorites. Still riding a wave of momentum after last season’s fifth-place finish at the World Championships, Weaver & Poje shot out of the gate at Skate Canada with a crowd-pleasing short dance. Their “Je Suis Malade” free dance had a couple of shaky moments and certainly offers room for improvement, but the dramatic program has a solid start. Looking to qualify for the first Grand Prix Final to be held in Canada in a decade, Weaver & Poje have chosen to enter three Grand Prix events this season. Points from their two highest finishes will count towards qualification for the Final, perhaps easing some of the pressure. However, since they will be facing World Champions Meryl Davis & Charlie White at their final event of this season, NHK Trophy is probably their best chance at taking home a golden souvenir.
Americans Maia Shibutani & Alex Shibutani will not let Weaver & Poje just skate into first place, though. The siblings have won two silver medals already this season, one last month at Finlandia Trophy, and a Grand Prix silver just last week at Cup of China. Known for their technical accuracy, their protocols last week revealed a few surprising levels. It will be interesting to see if they have enough time to correct those issues. The Shibutanis will not have their usual full training sessions between the competitions, but they do have the advantage of being past the East Asian jet lag, as Shanghai to Sapporo is not much of a commute.

Last year, Weaver & Poje and the Shibutanis went head-to-head three times, including at this event last year. Results were close each time, and they split their Grand Prix advantages. Weaver & Poje won silver to the Shibutanis’ bronze at NHK last year, but then the Shibutanis eked onto the podium ahead of Weaver & Poje at Skate America. At the World Championships, the Shibutanis won bronze again, to Weaver & Poje’s fifth place, but the difference was just over three points. In this competition, Weaver & Poje are expected to have the advantage in the short dance, and the free dance has the potential to be a close battle. The dance world generally focuses on the Canada-United States battle between two “other” teams, not expected to meet this season until December, but the battle between the second-ranked teams in each country should be just as exciting.

2011nhk-kgsOf course, Russia always has the ability to throw a wrench into the plans of a Canadian-American scuffle. This event is no exception to the rule, as Elena Ilinykh & Nikita Katsalapov will make their competitive season début in Sapporo. The 2010 world junior champions are a bit of a question mark at this event. Last year, they had plenty of hype, but tended to make mistakes that kept them off of international podiums, with the exception of a bronze medal at Cup of Russia. This year, they are untested so far, aside from an appearance at a Russian test skate, where they skated a version of their free dance (but not to the correct music) to mixed reviews. All eyes will be on them to see how they have progressed. Ilinykh & Katsalapov definitely have the potential to challenge for the NHK title this week, but will have to overcome past inconsistencies in order to do that.

Like their American teammates, Lynn Kriengkrairut & Logan Giulietti-Schmitt (pictured) are also competing at their second consecutive event, but they will have jet lag to overcome. Kriengkrairut & Giulietti-Schmitt won their first international title last week at Ice Challenge in Graz, Austria, and should have plenty of momentum heading into NHK Trophy. This entertaining team would love to improve upon the sixth-place finish they earned at their only Grand Prix event last year, Skate America, but their secondary goal is always to win over the crowd. Expect their free dance to “Walking in the Sand” to do just that.

A couple of teams will head to Sapporo seeking a dose of redemption after difficulties at Skate America. Nelli Zhiganshina & Alexander Gaszi began their season well with a silver medal at Nebelhorn Trophy, but came up short of the podium at Skate America after a twizzle mistake in their free dance. This vibrant team has focused on their technical abilities in the last couple of seasons and has made strong advances with the judges. After three seasons of missing the chance to skate on the Grand Prix, the 2011 German champions are back and looking stronger than ever.

Canada’s Alexandra Paul & Mitchell Islam struggled in the short dance at Skate America, making three major mistakes. Their free dance was much better, but they will definitely be hoping to have a stronger competition at NHK Trophy. They scored only 111.70 in California, but are capable of much better marks.

The home team, Cathy Reed & Chris Reed, started their season with a good fourth-place finish at Nebelhorn Trophy, earning 125.54 points. The Reeds have finished seventh at the past two NHK Trophy events, and this will be their fifth consecutive appearance at this competition.

Italy’s Lorenza Alessandrini & Simone Vaturi are finally making their Grand Prix début, after missing last year’s series due to injury. The couple finished 16th at the European Championships last year and recently won the silver medal at Ondrej Nepela Memorial to start the 2011-12 season.

Most teams will arrive in Sapporo on Tuesday, with the first day of official practices set for Thursday. Dancers will compete in the short dance on Friday afternoon and the free dance on Saturday afternoon. Like last week’s competition in China, dance teams will begin the competition on both days.