NHK Trophy 2017: Pairs Review

It was another week, and another win, for Wenjing Sui/Cong Han at NHK Trophy 2017. Although Sui/Han faced more competition at NHK Trophy than at last week’s Cup of China, they still dominated, scoring nearly a 12-point victory to take the gold. Let’s take a look at what happened with the pairs at NHK.

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The medalists (AFP Photo/Kazuhiro Nogi)

 

Sui/Han

Sui/Han had less than a week to prepare between Cup of China and NHK Trophy. But they showed no signs of fatigue in Japan and posted a new world-record score in the free skate, as well as a personal-best overall score, to win convincingly.

Sui/Han’s “Hallelujah” SP was lovely, skated with wonderful flow and emotion. This program is very well-designed by choreographer Lori Nichol; even elements like the pairs combo spin are well-matched to musical highlights. Sui/Han skated the program with abandon and ease. Their opening SBS 3Ts were good; their throw 3F was high, with a beautiful, smooth landing; and their ‘Tano triple twist was clean and well-executed. I really like Wenjing/Cong’s star lift in this program—the half-cartwheel entrance, her arm flourish in the air, and the flipout exit are all great variations that make for a beautiful lift. The only slight error came in the step sequence, where Wenjing had a small loss of balance on one step. Otherwise, it was a great performance. The judges awarded almost all +2s/+3s for their elements (even, cough, the step sequence), and they received two 10.00 marks in PCS. Sui/Han totaled 79.43 for 1st.

Sui-Han-SP

Another lovely short program for Sui/Han

Sui/Han were even better in their Turandot LP. There was a lot of wow factor in this program. Sui/Han opened with a good quad twist (9.29 points), then followed with 2 successful SBS jump passes. Their SBS 3T/2T/2T was nicely completed (if lacking runout). Then, for the second time in 2 weeks, they went for and landed the SBS 3S—their “problem” jump. There was no negative GOE, and they pulled in 5.30 points for the element. Great to see!! Both throw jumps were, as usual, outstanding. Their reverse lasso lift was also fast and smooth; earning 9.60 points (almost straight +3s), it was their highest-scoring element in the program. Their final star lift was most impressive as well. It has such a difficult entrance, pressing up from a spread eagle (props to Cong for pulling this off so well!). I thought Sui/Han’s elements looked overall better and smoother at NHK than at Cup of China, and the judges agreed, awarding an eye-popping 15.74 points in positive GOE. Artistically, the program built strongly toward a great ending. Sui/Han again skated with great emotional quality, really making you feel the music. I feel like the choreography for this program is fine, yet somehow not very memorable. Still, Sui/Han manage to make everything remarkable with the performance quality they bring. Their PCS marks were all in the 9s—with 5 marks of 10.00. Sui/Han earned 155.10 to set a new world record (surpassing Volosozhar/Trankov’s previous record of 154.66, set in 2013).

I feel like Sui/Han made a huge statement this fall on the Grand Prix. With their new world-record LP score and 2 runaway victories, they showed the skating world that: 1) They have not lost any shape or motivation since winning Worlds; 2) They are not resting on their reputation, but are instead upping the ante with a firm commitment to rotating the SBS 3S; and 3) They are going all out for that Olympic gold medal–no doubts, no question marks. In the last 2 weeks, they’ve confirmed their status as favorites for Olympic gold. The rest of the world’s pairs will have to make their case why they should be considered on the same level.

Stolbova/Klimov

One pair hoping to make that case, of course, is reigning Olympic silver medalists Stolbova/Klimov. After nearly 2 years of dealing with injuries, this team is now seen as somewhat of a long shot for Olympic gold—or any Olympic medal. And yet. Sui/Han just set the new world-record LP mark of 155.10. But, sitting quite close behind them on that list, at 154.60 … are Stolbova/Klimov. So, the potential is there. The question is whether Stolbova/Klimov can get their physical conditioning, timing, and confidence back where it needs to be in time for Pyeongchang. After seeing them at NHK, I think the answer is still—maybe. They’re not there yet. But they are looking better—so much better than at Rostelecom.

Stolbova-Klimov-lift

Stolbova/Klimov:  On their way back  (AFP Photo/Kazuhiro Nogi)

Stolbova/Klimov skated very well in their short program. They landed a solid set of SBS 3T and a great throw 3F, with their trademark high-speed exit. Their group 3 star lift had nice coverage, and they had beautiful positions in their pairs spin. Their level 3 step sequence was also a highlight, with difficult, interesting choreography. Stolbova/Klimov got a majority of +2s/+3s for GOE. Their only weak element was, as usual, the triple twist. They collided on the catch and got only level 1 (but, inexplicably, some +1s in GOE). Their new short program is set to the classic Latin American song “Besame Mucho,” which is technically bolero music, but has a somewhat similar feel to tango. It’s an interesting choice for Stolbova/Klimov. Ksenia brings great attitude and flair to the piece. However, the choppy accents of the Latin music call for quick, sharp turns and movements, rather than big, flowing stroking. I’m not sure if it’s the best choice to show off Ksenia/Fedor’s speed, which is their greatest strength. Nonetheless, they delivered the program very well, with great cleanness, power, and amplitude. They earned PCS of 37.03—just 0.66 behind Sui/Han. Overall, Stolbova/Klimov scored 75.05 for a performance that wasn’t close to their best. If they could do that well here, I see this program being potentially very successful for them later this season, with more practice and mileage. They were 2nd.

Stolbova/Klimov’s Carmen LP in Osaka wasn’t perfect; but it was their best free skate, and best score, in almost 2 years (since the Grand Prix Final in 2015). Ksenia/Fedor skated the program with great speed and attack, not backing off from any of their difficulty. They went for their big SBS 3T/3T combination and, although Fedor spun out and put his hands down on the second jump, they stayed on their feet and scored 7.20 points. They followed with a nice set of SBS 3S. Both throw jumps (3F, 3S) were landed with great speed and authority. Their level 1 triple twist was again problematic, with a crash on the catch. However, all their other elements were completed at a high quality level. Artistically, I find this Carmen program enjoyable to watch, but not particularly memorable as yet. There’s a nice choreographic sequence in the middle. But otherwise, the choreography feels a bit scant (especially for skaters of their ability). There are also some moves I don’t quite understand, such as the bicycle-wheel choreo lift. The program is adequate, but I just don’t find it as interesting or intriguing as the more modern, abstract LPs that Stolbova/Klimov did the last 2 years. Still, they performed it very well and received high PCS marks as usual (mostly mid-9s). Stolbova/Klimov scored 147.69 for 2nd LP/overall.

Stolbova/Klimov’s total score of 222.74 is #3 on the season’s-best list for pairs. It’s so encouraging for them and, again, a strong sign that they’re getting back toward peak form and should not be counted out of the medal chase in Korea. Assuming they continue on this track (all fingers crossed), the question for Ksenia/Fedor is: How to make up the current 12-point gap between them and Sui/Han? I think there are 4 keys for Stolbova/Klimov going forward.

1) Keep working on the timing and execution of the SBS jumps to hopefully get that SBS 3T/3T combo clean.

2) Work on increasing their lift GOE a bit via smoother exits/transitions. Ksenia/Fedor’s lifts are looking so much improved since Finlandia. But the exits/transitions could be even smoother, and that might make the difference between the +2s they got here and the +3s Sui/Han are getting on lifts.

3) Work to get those level 4s on the spins and step sequence. They had a few level 3s in Japan; each level lost is roughly .40 or .50 off their base vallue.

4) Fix the triple twist. This is by far the most urgent issue Ksenia/Fedor need to work on right now. I know I already mentioned this in my Rostelecom review, and I hate to belabor the point. But the fact is, it’s a huge problem. Stolbova/Klimov gave up 6.49 points to Sui/Han on the twist element alone in this competition. That’s more than HALF their total point deficit. They’ve simply got to fix this problem, or they can’t win against Sui/Han and the other top teams.

It’s going to be so interesting to see how Stolbova/Klimov continue to progress this season. With 2 silver medals on the GP, it’s likely, although not yet certain, that they’ll make the Grand Prix Final in December. I hope to see them there!

Astakhova/Rogonov

Astakhova/Rogonov came into this event off a bronze medal at Rostelecom, and continued that momentum in Japan. They placed a solid 3rd in both segments to clinch their first Grand Prix podium finish outside of Russia.

Astakhova-Rogonov-LP-throw

Astakhova/Rogonov:  Fighting for an Olympic spot  (AFP Photo/Kazuhiro Nogi)

Astakhova/Rogonov got off to a fine start in their Mozart Requiem SP. They delivered this powerful program with a lot of confidence, just checking off those elements. Their opening SBS 3S were good, if a bit far apart, and they hit their triple twist well, getting level 3 and positive marks. Their throw 3F was a bit forward, but held. I enjoy their step sequence in this program; it’s nicely set to the music, with a lot of interesting moves. Kristina/Alexei have always been aggressive, powerful skaters, but have struggled with achieving smoothness, refinement, and consistency. This year, they just seem a bit more together and well-prepared than in past seasons. They got a great score of 70.47 for 3rd.

Astakhova/Rogonov’s La La Land LP was also quite successful. In this Olympic season of repeated programs and programs to warhorse music, it’s so refreshing to see something new, fun, and different. I really enjoy the personality and character that Kristina/Alexei bring to this piece. Once again, their elements were pretty good in this program. Kristina doubled the SBS 3S, costing them 3.1 points in base value. But they hit the SBS 3T/2T/2T and both throw jumps (3F, 3Lp). Their level 3 triple twist was also pretty good, with nice height. Kristina/Alexei had all level 4 elements in this program, aside from the twist, showing good preparation on their part. They skated the program with their characteristic attack, as well as strong performance level. Kristina/Alexei aren’t a delicate or beautiful pair, but I do like their power. They scored 133.17 for 3rd LP/overall.

Coming into this season, I don’t think many people were expecting to see Astakhova/Rogonov with 2 Grand Prix medals. But they’ve made real improvement in their quality and consistency, which has led to greater success. With their 2 GP medals, plus silver at Ondrej Nepela, Astakhova/Rogonov are building a case for that third spot on the Russian Olympic team. A month ago, I would’ve said that Zabijako/Enbert had that spot almost in their pocket. Now, I’m not so sure. Astakhova/Rogonov have shown they’re not ready to concede that spot at all. So it may come down to which team does better at Russian Nationals.

Seguin/Bilodeau

Seguin/Bilodeau are still working to return to form after Julianne’s concussions last season. They showed some progress at NHK, finishing 4th with 2 decent performances.

Seguin-Bilodeau-SP

Seguin/Bilodeau show improvement

Seguin/Bilodeau had a few technical issues in the short program. The catch on their level 3 triple twist was not clean, leading to negative GOE. Julianne also had trouble on the SBS 3S—she came out forward and 2-footed after about 1.5 rotations. The jump was called a downgraded 2S, and they got only 0.10 for it. Fortunately, the rest of their elements were better, although Julianne had to bend low to save the throw 3F landing. As I mentioned in my Rostelecom review, I’m not a fan of this program to Lorde’s “Everybody Wants to Rule the World.” For me, the gloomy, dark tone does not suit Julianne/Charlie’s persona or look on the ice, and it doesn’t take advantage of their chemistry, either. I felt they didn’t look that comfortable skating to it; there were just some slight hesitations, form breaks, and re-sets going on during the program. However, their PCS marks were a bit higher than at Rostelecom. Seguin/Bilodeau scored 63.98 for 5th.

Seguin/Bilodeau’s “Where’s My Love” free skate was one of their best programs in a while. Their technical elements were mostly pretty good. The opening level 4 triple twist was pretty clean, and they hit both SBS jump sets (3T/2T, 3S) without any error. Their Axel lasso lift had good speed, coverage, and transitions, and was their highest-scoring element (8.90 points). Their SBS spins were just a bit off sync, but the only real problems came on the throw jumps. The throw 3F had nice height, but was 2-footed. On the throw 3Lp, Julianne landed forward and appeared to put a hand down. However, these throw mistakes only cost half a point in negative GOE. (They could have arguably been marked down more.) Artistically, I felt like this program worked much better than the SP. The modern pop song relates well to Seguin/Bilodeau’s youthful look, and they skated with a little bit more smoothness and spirit than I’ve seen from them lately. The program is not particularly distinctive, but it’s a decent enough vehicle for Seguin/Bilodeau. They scored 130.39 to pull up to 4th LP/overall.

This Grand Prix season was a bit disappointing for Seguin/Bilodeau, after their win at Skate America last season. However, they did skate better at NHK than at Rostelecom, improving their overall score by about 8 points. Julianne/Charlie now have a month and a half to prepare for Canadian Nationals. They’ll need to skate their best to guarantee a spot on the Canadian Olympic team.

Scimeca Knierim/Knierim

It wasn’t a bad competition at all for the Knierims, but I doubt they’re satisfied with their results. The last time they competed on the Grand Prix circuit in 2015-16, they won silver and bronze. Here at NHK, they had a strong shot at another bronze medal, but instead placed 5th.

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Knierims:  Quality elements, strong performance level (AFP Photo/Kazuhiro Nogi)

The Knierims started off well with a fine performance of their “Come What May” SP (repeated from last year). They had only one real mistake in this program; Chris 2-footed and spun out of the SBS 3S. Otherwise, the elements were quite strong. Their level 3 triple twist was gorgeous, with great height and speed, earning all +2s/+3s. The throw 3F also had great height; the landing was just a bit scratchy, but Alexa held on. The other elements were well done, although they did lose a few levels here and there. The music for this program is so epic and romantic that it’s hard to fully skate up to it. But, I have to say, Alexa shines really hard in this program. And she pretty much makes it work. The animation in her face–the bigness of her smile—the quickness with which she turns to look at the judges—all these things do not involve blades on the ice, but they do really help raise the performance level and sell the program. I enjoyed watching it and felt their score could have been, if anything, a bit higher. The Knierims posted 65.86 for 4th.

The Knierims’ Ghost free skate had some flashes of real brilliance … but was unfortunately marred by a couple of costly mistakes. Once again, they opened with a spectacular level 3 triple twist (8.20 points). They also landed 2 beautiful throw jumps. The throw 3S was one of the best I’ve seen from Alexa/Chris, with great distance and a perfectly smooth landing. It earned almost straight +2s, but I actually would have liked to see a couple more +3s here. The throw 3F was also excellent and quite effective, ending on a musical accent. Alexa/Chris’s lifts were very nicely done, earning almost all positive GOE. So, there were a lot of really great things in this program … However, there were also some mistakes on the SBS jumps. Chris put a hand down on the SBS 3S and then doubled the SBS 3T in the combo. Together, these jump errors cost over 4.5 points. Then they had more trouble with the SBS spins, which were far apart and off sync. It was really too bad, because in many respects, this was a world-class program from Alexa/Chris. Artistically, I feel like this music totally works for them. The romantic theme and gentle, emotional mood brings out their personal chemistry and generally highlights their strengths. Choreographer Cindy Stuart has created some beautiful shapes, transitions, and dance lifts in this program; it really casts quite a spell. I found it quite moving to watch. I do have to take issue with the PCS marks that the Knierims received for this program. Their PCS score of 64.74 was just slightly ahead of Seguin/Bilodeau’s 64.13; I felt like they should have had a bigger margin. Although Seguin/Bilodeau may have better skating skills, the Knierims’ line, extension, and musicality are much superior. And I felt they did a better job of “telling a story” on the ice. Alexa/Chris scored 126.65 and fell to 5th LP/overall.

The Knierims now have 1 week to prepare for Skate America–where they will face the deepest pairs field in the Grand Prix series.

Ziegler/Kiefer

Ziegler/Kiefer have made so much progress in their skating over the past year. However, this competition was a bit of a step backward, as they struggled quite a bit in the long program.

Ziegler-Kiefer-SP.jpg

Ziegler/Kiefer:  Good SP, not-so-good LP

At least their “500 Miles” SP was good! I really like this upbeat, cheery program for Miriam/Severin, and they seem to enjoy skating it, too. Miriam/Severin have improved significantly this year in their form, line, and attention to detail. Before, there was a slight sloppiness to their skating. But they’ve cleaned that up, and the difference is noticeable in elements like their pairs combo spin, where they hit some lovely positions. Their lifts are also improved, with much better extension in Miriam’s air positions. Not only did they present the program well, they hit some good technical elements. Their SBS 3Ts were great, getting some +2s. Miriam’s landing on the throw 3F was a touch forward, but they only got 1 negative GOE mark. They even scored a level 4 on their step sequence. The only messy element was the triple twist, which got only basic level and negative GOE. Interestingly, Ziegler/Kiefer’s PCS score (29.34) was their highest PCS of the season—and only about 1 point behind the Knierims in this segment. Ziegler/Kiefer scored 62.61 overall and placed a strong 6th.

But then, things fell apart in Ziegler/Kiefer’s Coldplay free skate. 😦 The program got off to a shaky start with Miriam spinning out of the SBS 3S, followed by a very late catch on the level 1 triple twist, and then Miriam falling on the SBS 3T. They lost 4.5 points in negative GOE on those 3 elements. They partially recovered with a good throw 3F, but then Miriam fell heavily to the ice on the throw 3S. It was pretty much a disaster … And yet, they did keep up a decent quality level on their lifts and spins. And thanks to that, their final point total was a respectable 108.52. (In past years, they would’ve been below 100.) Ziegler/Kiefer held on for 6th LP/overall.

The Austrians are close to making the leap that Della Monica/Guarise did a few years ago—going from “the best of the rest” in Europe to one of the mid-tier teams in contention for Challenger Series or even Grand Prix medals. They need to stay consistent, though, if they’re going to keep earning the judges’ respect.

Suto/Boudreau-Audet

It’s been a tough season so far for Suto/Boudreau-Audet. The trend continued at NHK, where they placed a distant 7th.

Suto-Boudreau Audet-SP

Suto/Boudreau-Audet after their SP

Suto/Boudreau-Audet had quite a few problems in their Sakura SP. Their opening level 2 triple twist had an awkward catch. Then Sumire singled the SBS 3S … and they received no credit, as singles are an invalid element in the SP. Ouch. The throw 3S was tilted, but Sumire hung on. They lost balance on the transition in the pairs spin, and they were off unison at the start of the step sequence. Last year I enjoyed this lighthearted, lyrical SP. But this year, they’ve been making so many mistakes, it’s hard to appreciate the program. Suto/Boudreau-Audet scored just 51.69 for 7th.

Suto/Boudreau-Audet’s free skate was somewhat better. They landed the SBS 3S this time, as well as the throw 3S. However, they had downgrade/underrotation problems on both jumps in the SBS 2A/2A sequence, earning only 1.29, and Sumire 2-footed the throw 3Lp. Their level 2 triple twist was a little better than in the SP, but still got some negative marks. As to the program itself … I have to say it’s not one of my favorites this season. Usually I’m quite a big fan of Julie Marcotte’s choreography; but this program is a rare misfire. The cover versions of Beatles songs have different tempos/tones that don’t blend well together, and the choreography feels somewhat unrelated to either the music or the couple. Although Suto/Boudreau-Audet racked up enough TES to score 104.83 for 7th, their PCS scores lagged 6 points behind Ziegler/Kiefer.

Suto/Boudreau-Audet will now look to regroup for Japanese Nationals, Four Continents, and presumably Worlds later this season.

Suzaki/Kihara

Suzaki/Kihara are quite a new team, in just their second season together. They skated fairly well at their first Grand Prix.

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Suzaki/Kihara in their first Grand Prix appearance

Suzaki/Kihara’s Yuri on Ice SP was charming. Miu Suzaki fell on their opening SBS 3Lz—but kudos to them for trying such a difficult element! Miu also turned out of the throw 3Lp, and their triple twist was only basic level. However, Miu/Ryuichi kept things going. They didn’t let the mistakes derail the program. And there were some bright spots—they achieved a level 4 on their step sequence, very good for such a new team! Their lift also wasn’t bad. Suzaki/Kihara scored 44.83 for 8th.

Suzaki/Kihara put out a decent skate of their Romeo & Juliet LP, but their weaknesses as a new team were a bit more exposed in this program. They did well with the SBS jumps, completing both SBS 3Lz and a SBS 3T/2T/2T combo. Both jumps had issues (underrotation/edge call on the Lutz; far apart on the combo). But they scored an impressive 9.60 points total on the jumps; only 3 other teams in the event scored higher. Their level 1 triple twist also wasn’t too bad. However, they had errors on both throw jumps. Something seems to be off with their throw technique—it looks like Ryuichi isn’t releasing Miu quickly enough. They also had trouble with the other pairs elements, many of which had errors and were only level 1 or 2. The program didn’t make much of an impact. Suzaki/Kihara’s skating looked very soft and slow. They need much more power, push, and definition in their movement. They scored 95.15 for 8th LP/overall.

Suzaki/Kihara will now prepare for Japanese Nationals. There’s a real chance we could see this team at the Olympics in Pyeonchang. Japan is the first alternate nation in the pairs event, and North Korea has yet to confirm that Ryom/Kim will in fact use the spot they earned at Nebelhorn. If Ryom/Kim are not allowed to compete in Pyeongchang, then a Japanese team will take their place—and it cannot be Suto/Boudreau-Audet, due to his lack of Japanese citizenship. In this scenario, Suzaki/Kihara would be the likely choice for the Japanese federation.

Wrap-up

It was an exciting pairs event at NHK Trophy, highlighted by Sui/Han’s triumphant LP and Stolbova/Klimov’s continuing improvement and return to form. Tomorrow, the Grand Prix moves to Internationaux de France, where we’ll see Tarasova/Morozov face off against home team James/Cipres, as well as Ilyushechkina/Moscovitch and Peng/Jin, who will be looking to rebound from disappointing results at Skate Canada. It should be a great event!

Note: If you’re enjoying the articles on The Divine Sport, please take a moment to “like” the site’s Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/adivinesport/. You can also follow me on Twitter to get updates of new posts: @ClaireCloutier onhttps://twitter.com.

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