Injury to ice dance favourite Cizeron opens door at NHK Trophy
Olympic silver medallists unable to compete in Grand Prix's 4th stop
We've reached event number four of the six-event Grand Prix of Figure Skating series. This is where things start to get serious.
The ISU Grand Prix Final takes place in December in Vancouver, where the top six in each discipline qualify to compete.
The NHK Trophy, taking place this week in Hiroshima, Japan, should see a few more skaters booking their trip to Canada.
You can watch all the action live on CBCSports.ca beginning Friday at 12:20 a.m. ET.
Here's a look at who to watch in each competition:
Ice dance: Papadakis, Cizeron out
By this point in the Grand Prix circuit, we have pretty much seen all of the key players, with the exception of the 2018 Olympic ice dance silver medallists, Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron.
To say these two have been keeping a low profile would be an understatement. According to sources, they enjoyed a long break after what was an exhausting season and didn't really put their skates back on in earnest until August. They have yet to publicly preview their free dance, and when they skated their rhythm dance at the French Masters event, filming was forbidden.
Papadakis and Cizeron are such a talented team that I believe that they could show up on competition day after a long break and still win. Sadly, we won't get that chance at NHK Trophy.
Their agent, David Baden, told CBC Sports on Tuesday that Cizeron suffered "a minor back injury last Wednesday when he was on ice practising" with Papadakis.
"The injury is considered minor and he is expected to be back on the ice as of today," Baden added. "The decision to withdraw was at the recommendation of his medical and coaching teams. Papadakis and Cizeron have every intention to compete at their next Grand Prix event in France."
This leaves the door open for Russian national bronze medallists Tiffany Zagorski and Jonathan Guerreiro to potentially take their first Grand Prix title — adding to their first Grand Prix medal, a bronze, which they claimed at Skate America.
Men: It's Uno's competition to lose
In my mind, this is Shoma Uno's competition to lose. With the Skate Canada title under his belt, Uno is looking for another gold medal to secure his spot for the Grand Prix Final.
Out of pure interest, I am anxious for a second look at American Vincent Zhou, whose beautiful programs are a highlight regardless, in my mind, of the under-rotations he is penalized for in his jumps.
Will he have had time to improve his technique since Skate America? That is one of the questions on my mind.
Women: 'Tiny Queen' vs. 'The Empress'
The women's competition is a battle royale — or should I say royal? The fans, with great affection, refer to Japan's Satoko Miyahara as the "Tiny Queen" and Russia's Elizaveta Tuktamysheva as "The Empress".
Both women have one Grand Prix title apiece this season and are looking for their second. Frankly? It's a toss up.
Tuktamysheva's gorgeous triple Axel jump in her short program could give her a momentary edge, but if Miyahara skates like she did at Skate America, she would be the woman to beat.
It could all go sidewise if Grand Prix debutante Rika Kihira of Japan does what she is capable of as the first woman to land a triple Axel/triple toe combination in competition, which she did at the Junior Grand Prix Final in December 2017.
Don't let her status as reigning Japanese junior champion fool you. She easily won the Ondrej Nepela Trophy 2018 competition and is ready to compete with the seniors.
Pairs: 2 teams ready to battle
The pairs will come down to two teams: Russians Natalia Zabiiako and Alexander Enbert and Canadians Kirsten Moore-Towers and Michael Marinaro.
Zabiiako and Enbert are strong but not invincible. In Helsinki last week at their first Grand Prix, Zabiiako and Enbert didn't win the short program but were able to win the title based on the strength of their free skate.
Moore-Towers and Marinaro continue to improve on all fronts and with a strong enough short program, could generate a lead that would make them difficult to catch.
The same could be said for the Chinese pair of Cheng Peng and Yang Jin, who squeaked ahead of Moore-Towers and Marinaro for the silver at Skate Canada by a margin of 0.15.
Pj's gold-medal picks
Men: Shoma Uno (Japan)
Women: Satoko Miyahara (Japan)
Pairs: Natalia Zabiiako and Alexander Enbert (Russia)
Ice Dance: Tiffany Zagorski and Jonathan Guerreiro (Russia)