Redemption the theme for NHK Trophy | Figure Skating | CBC Sports

Figure SkatingRedemption the theme for NHK Trophy

Posted: Wednesday, November 9, 2011 | 12:23 PM

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Japan's Mao Asada is set to unveil her retooled programs in her Grand Prix season debut in Sapporo. (Yuri Kadobnov/AFP/Getty Images) Japan's Mao Asada is set to unveil her retooled programs in her Grand Prix season debut in Sapporo. (Yuri Kadobnov/AFP/Getty Images)

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Figure skating's elite are in Sapporo, Japan this week for the fourth stop on the Grand Prix circuit, the NHK Trophy.

Some of the best skates are the ones for pride, and there should be plenty of those to go around this weekend.
Figure skating's elite are in Sapporo, Japan this week for the fourth stop on the Grand Prix circuit, the NHK Trophy.

Some of the best skates are the ones for pride, and there should be plenty of those to go around this weekend.

Ladies: Pressure off Phaneuf

Look no further than the ladies' event for a little something to keep you on the edge of your seat. For Canadian fans, reigning champion Cynthia Phaneuf will be on hand, looking to improve on her disastrous outing at Skate Canada. With no chance of qualifying for the Grand Prix Final in December in Quebec City, and therefore no pressure, Phaneuf has the opportunity to show the world that she belongs in the world's final flight.

Another woman looking to put herself back on the skating map is the divine Mao Asada of Japan. The story in a nutshell: she plummeted from taking her second world title in 2010 to not qualifying for last season's Grand Prix Final. I can explain. With a (welcome) coaching change to the legendary Nobuo Sato, they took apart her jump technique, which left her shaky all season long. She is said to be concentrating less on her biggest trick, the triple Axel, and more on her overall skating. A "bad" Mao Asada can still be better than a "good" just about anybody else.

Men: Verner begins comeback

More excitement will come from the men's event, to be sure. Daisuke Takahashi, the 2010 world champion from Japan, looked a little sleepy in taking the bronze medal at Skate Canada. I think the home-country advantage and his sophisticated choreography will give Takahashi the edge in Sapporo. His short program this season is exquisite, and if he can get the jumps out and take the lead, the rest of the field will have a hard time catching him.

In keeping with our redemption theme, Tomas Verner of the Czech Republic will make his Grand Prix debut. He has a history of illness or injury arriving at the most inopportune times, which left the European bronze medallist 12th in the world in 2011. Recovering from a back injury has taken the better part of the last 12 weeks, but Verner is determined to compete. I am interested to see how he will do here given the number of solid quad toes and triple Axels I saw in practice last week in a suburban Toronto rink.

Dance: Canadians' to lose

The ice dance event is Kaitlyn Weaver's and Andrew Poje's to lose. From their silver-medal outing at Skate Canada, it's clear that the Canadians spent their summer vacation on the ice. They have renewed power, strength and flow, and two contrasting programs that showcase their versatility.

The American brother and sister duo of Maia and Alex Shibutani are the reigning world bronze medalists. They're hard working, charming and adorable, and that's the crux of the problem. Their finishing 15.12 points behind the Russian team of Ekaterina Bobrova and Dmitri Soloviev to take the silver medal at last week's Cup of China is the writing on the wall for the Shibutanis. The judges are favouring more barracuda than sunfish in the ice dance fishbowl this season.

Pairs: Challenge for Savchenko, Szolkowy

There isn't a whole lot to say about the pairs event. I think the defending and three-time world champions from Germany, Aliona Savchenko and Robin Szolkowy, will take their second Grand Prix title here. What I'm more interested to see is how Russia's Yuko Kavaguti and Alexander Smirnov will stack up against them. In a surprising twist, the Russians earned the Cup of China title last week on the strength of mature and understated choreography. Will this be enough to overtake the Germans, or at the very least pile on some real pressure?

Pj's picks for gold:

Men: Daisuke Takahashi (Japan)
Ladies: Mao Asada (Japan)
Pairs: Aliona Savchenko and Robin Szolkowy (Germany)
Dance:  Kaitlyn Weaver and Andrew Poje (Canada)

Pj Kwong chats live with fans during CBC's broadcast of the NHK Trophy on Saturday starting at 2 p.m. ET. Stream the show live and interact with one of the world's best figure skating analysts.

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