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Fantasy skating preview: NHK Trophy

Competitors making second appearance still hard to predict

Taking a chance on Akiko Suzuki over countrywoman Mao Asada could propel you to victory.
Taking a chance on Akiko Suzuki over countrywoman Mao Asada could propel you to victory. (Getty Images)

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By Tara Wellman, special to icenetwork.com
(11/09/2011) - We've made it to the halfway point in the Grand Prix season. Can you believe it? Now, we get the chance to really see what improvements have been made as NHK Trophy is the second event for several of the skaters headed to Japan.

Not that round two is any easier to predict!

Pairs staking their claim

Pool A
At Skate America, Aliona Savchenko and Robin Szolkowy took a bold step when they attempted a throw triple Axel in their short program. Unfortunately, it failed. However, when the rest of the competitors faltered in the long, the reigning world champs came back to win. Here, they have a much slimmer margin for error -- Cup of China champs Yuko Kavaguti and Alexander Smirnov will be hot on their heels. Savchenko and Szolkowy have a more consistent history, and they've had a few weeks to recover and build towards NHK, so I'm giving them the benefit of the doubt. But, should they miss, the Russians will have a golden opportunity in Japan.

Pool B
Lubov Iliushechkina and Nodari Maisuradze earned more than 165 points to finish fifth at Skate Canada. But, despite their inexperience together, Caydee Denney and John Coughlin skated to a 175-plus, fourth-place finish at Skate America. Iliushechkina and Maisuradze may have more pairs experience, but they are rough around the edges and still inconsistent. Even if they're a bit unproven, my bet is on the Americans in this group.

Pool C
The other American team -- Marissa Castelli and Simon Shnapir -- also hold the experience card over their Pool C counterparts from Canada. Purich and Schultz are making their senior Grand Prix debut in Sapporo, so Castelli and Shnapir are my "C" picks.

Dancers aim for consistency

Pool A
Maia and Alex Shibutani will face another tough task this week in the much-improved Kaitlyn Weaver and Andrew Poje. The Canadians have had a few weeks since their silver medal at Skate Canada and will be trying to improve on their 155-plus overall score. The Shibutanis were exposed in some areas during their GP debut last week. They have the strengths to overpower the Canadians at some point this season, but in Japan, I'm picking Weaver and Poje.

Pool B
Nelli Zhiganshina and Alexander Gazsi had a strong start to their season, earning a fourth place finish at Skate America. Cathy Reed and Chris Reed also finished fourth in their season premiere at Nebelhorn Trophy. But, the Germans' total score was six points higher. The Reeds have been quite inconsistent throughout their careers, so I suspect the Germans improve on their Skate America finish and top the home team in Sapporo.

Pool C
Alexandra Paul and Mitch Islam had quite the buzz coming into the season. However, their Skate America showing left much to be desired. Lynn Kriengkrairut and Logan Giullietti-Schmitt from the USA, however, have more to offer than just the longest names in the competition! They showed promise last season, and with Paul and Islam struggling early, they may just make their presence known. It will be a battle, but I'm willing to take a chance on the young American duo.

Quads could determine men's champion

Pool A
Daisuke Takahashi had some difficulties at his first GP event this season. However, even with flawed performances and no quad, his score upwards of 237 was enough for bronze. Despite tough competition from countryman Takahiko Kozuka, I'm picking Takahashi in Pool A.

Pool B
Much has already been made about Brandon Mroz this season, and his international season is only now beginning! Mroz, of course, was credited for landing the first quad lutz as ratified by the ISU earlier this year. However, the Japanese youngster Tatsuki Machida bested Daisuke Takahashi at Triglav Trophy with a score of just over 236 points. As always, he who skates cleanest likely wins, but I give the slight nod to Machida.

Pool C
Armin Mahbanoozadeh had a rough go of his first GP outing of the year. Ross Miner, on the other hand, had a so-so short program, but came back with a great free skate to finish sixth at Skate Canada. Armin has plenty of weapons when he's on, but until he gets on track, my money is on Ross.

Ladies provide national face-offs

Pool A
Herein lies this week's largest dilemma -- Mao Asada vs. Akiko Suzuki. Picking based on potential (or, perhaps more accurately, "hype"), Asada would get the vote. She has the credentials: World champ, Olympic silver medalist, triple Axel... and yet, last season saw her fall completely apart.

Suzuki is often overshadowed by her Japanese counterparts, but she has quietly put together season after season of stunning choreography, this season backing it up with the technique to earn a silver medal at Skate Canada. With Suzuki, we have an idea of what to expect. Not so with Asada. Hesitantly, I give the edge to Suzuki.

Pool B
Ashley Wagner emphatically proved her reinvention with Mr. Nicks is working with her bronze medal at Skate Canada. With Cynthia Phaneuf struggling to put clean programs together, she's the clear favorite in Pool B. Watch out, though -- Agnes Zawadzki is a fireball with plenty of technical content to boot. She could be a wild card.

Pool C
Elene Gedevanishvili didn't live up to expectations at Skate America; however, she did finish third in the free skate. Mae Berenice Meite of France will be hot on her heels, so once again, there's little room for error. While it's hard to predict either one, Gedevanishvili is my "C" pick.

With so many skaters in their second event, NHK Trophy is bound to be a quality event. Here's hoping your fantasy team follows suit!