Fantasy skating preview: Cup of China

Third Grand Prix stop packed with tough choices

Maia Shibutani and Alex Shibutani will challenge for gold at the Cup of China.
Maia Shibutani and Alex Shibutani will challenge for gold at the Cup of China. (Getty Images)


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By Tara Wellman, special to
(11/02/2011) - We're off to China for the third round of the U.S. Figure Skating Fantasy Challenge! The first two events in the 2011 Grand Prix series gave us a taste of what's to come this season, and the 2011 Cup of China offers a new group of young talent looking to leave its mark on the international stage.

Dance battle at the top

Pool A: Russians Ekaterina Bobrova and Dimitri Soloviev skated to gold and silver medals in their Grand Prix events last season but struggled against top-tier competition. Maia Shibutani and Alex Shibutani, on the other hand, surprised everyone with a podium finish at the 2011 world championships. They topped 151 points at the Finlandia Trophy to start their season. In China, both should land on the podium, but I expect the Shibutanis to take the top spot.

Pool B: The two American teams have a significant lack of experience, with Charlotte Litchman and Dean Copely making in their senior debut, and Emily Samuelson and Todd Gilles in their team debut. The French team of Pernelle Carron and Lloyd Jones had a fourth- and a fifth-place finish in last season's Grand Prix Series. Litchman and Copely have the higher personal best, but Carron and Jones have competed already this year, placing second at the Cup of Nice. It should be tight, but I'm banking on the French team in this group.

Pool C: This is the first of four Pool Cs with relatively unknown skaters. Here, both couples are from China and competed earlier this year at the Asian Winter Games, where Xingtong Huang and Xun Zheng outpaced their countrymen, finishing first to Xiaoyang Yu and Chen Wang's third. On that premise, I pick Huang and Zheng.

Pairs hope for success at home

Pool A: Dan Zhang and Hao Zhang are the veterans in this group, but despite their silver medal at Skate America, they faltered in the free skate and let Germans Aliona Savchenko and Robin Szolkowy come from behind to win. Young Wenjing Sui and Cong Han took home silver last week in Canada. They may not lead after the short, but they have bigger tricks and higher scores in the free. They are on the rise, and I expect them to continue that climb here at home.

Pool B: Yuko Kavaguti and Alexander Smirnov are a team that, when all goes well, can blow you away. Their free skate last season vaulted them into contention, but they faltered at worlds and finished fourth. Amanda Evora and Mark Ladwig have plenty of experience working in their favor, but at this point in the season, I expect Kavaguti and Smirnov to have an edge. Again, if the Russians falter, this could be very close.

Pool C: Next up in the battle of inexperience, a dance team climbing the ladder of the deep Canadian field, and one trying to put itself on the senior map. Klara Kadlecova and Petr Bidar of the Czech Republic have already competed this season, which, early in the year, is a big advantage over a team facing its debut. They're my "C" pick.

Men on a mission

Pool A: This group could, in all honesty, favor any one of three.

Artur Gachinski skated in the Japan Open, where he debuted his free skate to the tune of 152 points. However, he's still relatively inexperienced, and his components leave something to be desired.

Nobunari Oda finished second at both of his Grand Prix events last season as well as at the Grand Prix Final. Yet at worlds, he stumbled under the pressure and landed in sixth.

Jeremy Abbott medaled at both of his assignments in 2010-11, finished just off the podium (fourth) at the final and placed third at the Four Continents Championships. But he had a rough go at the U.S. championships and was left off the world team. He may be skating with a chip on his shoulder.

In my mind, that gives Jeremy an edge.

Pool B: After placing fourth at Skate America, Richard Dornbush will face Kevin Reynolds and Yuzuru Hanyu in this group.

Reynolds tends to struggle putting good programs back to back, sometimes due to the risks he takes on the jumps.

Dornbush earned 202.27 points at Skate America. However, Hanyu scored better than 226 at the Nebelhorn Trophy to kick off his 2011-12 campaign. Dornbush has improvements to make. Hanyu -- if he's clean -- should win this group.

Pool C: Jinlin Guan and Jialiang Wu placed fourth and fifth, respectively, at the 2011 Asian Winter Games, with Guan outscoring his countrymate by nearly 12 points. He also topped Wu at Four Continents last season. While it likely comes down to who skates cleanest, Guan has the head-to-head edge.

Ladies : Pick a skater, any skater

Pool A: Carolina Kostner is coming off a silver medal at Skate America. She has two great programs and looks strong. The fiery Kanako Murakami (who placed third and first in her two Grand Prixs last season) could provide some competition. Still, Kostner should take this group.

Pool B: If there can be a group that is impossible to predict, this might be it. Mirai Nagasu struggled last week, making silly -- but costly -- mistakes that landed her in fifth in an event she could have won.

Christina Gao makes her Grand Prix Series debut after a very successful junior season last year. She's in line for a rematch with Russian phenom Adelina Sotnikova, who also makes her senior debut as the reigning world junior champion.

Does Mirai bounce back and prove she's one of the world's best? Does Sotnikova follow in Elizaveta Tuktamisheva's footsteps and become the second young Russian this season to win gold in her Grand Prix debut? My head vote goes to Sotnikova. She has programs jam-packed with technical content, and she is coming off a confidence-building, undefeated junior season. My heart leans towards Mirai; she has been down before, and she'll be hungry to erase last week's memory.

It's nearly even, but picking based on "experience over hype," Nagasu has a narrow advantage.

Pool C: Kexin Zhang topped the more experienced Bingwa Geng early in the season, but Geng has a few senior competitions under her belt. This one, too, could shift either way, but I have Geng coming out on top.