The 2014 NHK Trophy Competition

As they say, all good things come to an end and much like in Vanessa Williams' power ballad, the best was indeed saved for last. The final of six stops in this year's Grand Prix was the NHK Trophy in Osaka, Japan. Skaters from all over the world gathered in the Namihaya Dome in what was for all their final chance to attempt to qualify for the ISU Grand Prix Final in Barcelona, Spain in two weeks time. As with any of these event recaps, I'll post videos of some of the standout performances. Many of them might be geoblocked in your country, and for that I apologize. Around the time of major competitions, videos go up every minute and come down and get geoblocked just as fast. If you're unable to watch videos in your country, I've got some great advice for you. Go to YouTube, and under your search settings you can select 'Upload Date'. If you type in keywords for the competition or skater you want to see, you can narrow it down to 'Today' or 'This Week' and usually find just what you're looking for in minutes! And now, on to the event at hand...

Three men's spots at the Grand Prix Final would be left up to the results of the men's event in Osaka. The other three had already been claimed by Maxim Kovtun, Javier Fernandez and Tatsuki Machida, respectively.

When I interviewed Daisuke Murakami last fall, he was on the comeback trail. He told me "I was written off after my withdrawal from NHK and Japanese Nationals last year. My mindset this year was to strengthen and condition my body and start from the ground up starting with Regionals. Because I was held back physically compared to my competitors in Japan, I plan to take every competition this year and build within every competition and give my best performance at Japanese Nationals." Ultimately, Murakami finished a disappointing tenth in an incredibly deep field at that competition but his resolve to come back and fight was absolutely clear at this event. He came out in attack mode in his short program to "El Tango De Roxanne", landing a quad salchow/double toe combination, triple axel and triple flip and finishing third of the eleven men competing. In his restrained but elegant free skate to Rachmaninoff, he couldn't put a foot wrong! Two quad salchows, two triple axels, triple lutz, triple flip, triple loop... you name it, he did it and he did it with confidence and style. Really nice to see Murakami pull off a huge upset at this event and have his moment in the spotlight! I don't know about you, but if I was a bigwig at the Japan Skating Federation, I'd probably be kicking myself for not giving this guy a second Grand Prix assignment right about now... but what do you do? He won the 2014 NHK Trophy with a score of 246.07, ten points ahead of his closest competitor... and served the other Japanese men notice that he's once again a very real threat.

Russia's Sergei Voronov followed up his silver medal win at the Rostelecom Cup with a some more sterling silver in Osaka. Although he landed his quad combination in the short program, a missed triple axel saw him in fourth place with a score of 78.93. He rebounded with another technically outstanding free skate that featured a quad toe/triple toe and two triple axels. You really can't say anything bad about this guy technically - he can jump! In terms of the presentation however, like I said before, superfluous music cuts, Viktor Petrenko chicken legs and Sotnikova like showboating does not program make. To me, all that was missing was a Carlton Banks finger snap sequence. Going back to Evgeni Plushenko's "Best Of Plushenko" program, this was just too much of everything and not enough of something. The judges did get it right this time by giving him a PCS score of 77.38, the fifth highest of the men in the free skate, but if you want to look at comparisons, they gave the same program a higher PCS score than Jason Brown... in Russia. I don't know, forgive my cynicism... but that still makes me go hmm... His final score was 236.65 and he will join fellow Russian Maxim Kovtun at the Grand Prix Final in Barcelona.

Japan's Takahito Mura won Skate Canada in Kelowna but up against such a strong field, it was hard to say how he'd fare here. The technical difficulty of his "Carmen" short program (quad toe/triple toe, triple axel and triple lutz) was enough to give him the win in that part of the competition, even if his PCS score wasn't up to snuff with either Hanyu or Abbott. His free skate was more of a grab bag of some nice jumps and some sloppy ones. He got in a quad toe/double toe, triple axel and triple lutz but misses on three jumping passes seemed to degenerate the flow of the minimally present choreography that was there in the first place and detract from the overall impression of the program. I don't think the music or the costume that looked like it had been pulled out of the back of Alexei Urmanov's closet helped any either. It just didn't do it for me. With a fourth place finish in the free skate and a higher PCS score than Murakami (yeah, about that...) Mura finished third overall with a score of 234.44... and earned a ticket to the Grand Prix Final.

In China, Olympic Gold Medallist and World Champion Yuzuru Hanyu injured himself badly and went out and skated a disastrous free skate replete with multiple falls. After Han Yan's participation at last week's Trophée Éric Bompard wasn't exactly a success story, I had my doubts Hanyu would be in top form at this event either. Sadly, he proved my suspicions right. In the short program, Hanyu imploded and had serious errors on two of his three jumping passes. Although his PCS score of 42.11 rewarded his musicality in the short program, the fact his TES score of 36.90 was the fifth highest of the close pack of men kept Hanyu in fifth heading into the free skate. When he came out and started his "Phantom Of The Opera" free skate with a doubled salchow and a fall on a triple toe, all I could envision in my head was this confused looking skater in China wrapped in a head bandage trying to fight his way through some losing battle. That said, the rest of the program was actually quite nice here... a triple axel/triple toe, triple lutz and two other triples made the best of a program that looked ominous at its beginning. With a third place finish in the free skate, Hanyu moved up to fourth overall with a score of 229.80... and earned a trip to the Grand Prix Final. The rebound here after the first two mistakes in the free skate aside, Hanyu managed this Barcelona ticket with four less than impressive performances. Part of me is reminded of when in 1997 the suggestion was made that a very injured Susan Humphreys stand on the ice for four minutes at the Lausanne Worlds to ensure a Canadian ladies spot for the Nagano Olympics. In the article linked, David Dore was quoted as saying "I didn't favor that. I think it's a back-door entry. I don't think it would make any of us proud and I don't think it would make Susan proud. Nothing is worth harming a person's health. I mean, she wasn't fit to skate." I don't think Hanyu necessarily looked unfit to skate in Osaka, but he certainly did not look fit to skate in China... and I'm conflicted about how I ultimately feel about his qualification for the Final as a result.

Four time U.S. Champion and Olympic Bronze Medallist Jeremy Abbott has an immense following in Japan and as usual, was a huge fan favourite at this event which he has won two medals at before (silver in 2010 and bronze last season). In Osaka, Jeremy delivered not one - but two - outstanding performances. His short program to "Lay Me Down" by Sam Smith was without question the performance of the night. It featured a solid triple flip/triple toe, triple lutz and triple axel, earning him a second place finish with a score of 81.51. His free skate to Samuel Barber's "Adagio For Strings" was an artistic tour de force, a perfect balance of technical difficulty and wonderful music interpretation. He completed six gorgeous triples and kept up the performance level from start to finish and earned an overall score of 229.65, which dropped him all the way down to fifth place underneath Hanyu despite earning the highest PCS score of any of the men in the free skate (83.86). At the end of the day, Abbott's performances here are to me what figure skating is about - interpreting music and telling a story on the ice. Competitive skating is fortunate to have him around for another year.

Canada had two representatives in the men's event in Osaka - Jeremy Ten and Elladj Baldé. Ten left room for improvement in his first assignment and Baldé had withdrawn from Skate Canada with a concussion. Baldé finished a strong sixth in this event with a clean short program that included a quad and a free skate that boasted a very nice quad toe, triple axel and five other triples. These were honestly two of the finest performances I've ever seen from him and he has a lot to be proud of with regard to his performance at this event! Ten had some nice moments as well, including a very credible go at the quad as well as a triple axel, two triple lutzes and a triple flip/triple toe in his beautiful free skate to "Hallelujah" but some jump problems kept him down in eighth place at this event... but you know what? He finished ahead of a World Junior Champion and the man currently ranked thirteenth in the world. That's nothing to sneeze at and Ten ALSO has plenty to be proud of in terms of the determination he fought through that free skate with.

Only two spots remained open in the Grand Prix Final that would be ultimately decided by the ladies results at this event, the other four slots all filled by Russian ladies: Elizaveta Tuktamysheva, Anna Pogorilaya, Julia Lipnitskaia and Elena Radionova.

Gracie Gold may have won the bronze medal in Chicago, but in a distinctly deep field I was curious to see how she'd fare in Osaka. Spoiler alert: she did fantastic! A clean short program with a beautiful triple lutz/triple toe, triple loop and double axel earned her an ever so slight lead with a score of 68.16 that she was able to maintain in the free skate with a program that included two triple lutzes, a double axel/triple toe combination and a triple loop. She did fall on a triple salchow and double her triple flip attempt, but overall it was a good skate for Gracie and enough for the title with a score of 191.16 overall. I'm still not sold on the "Phantom Of The Opera" but that's a whole other story entirely. I'm just getting really sick of the music overload and like I've said before, unless you're Brian Boitano or Robin Cousins, it might not be the vehicle for you. That said, the results after this event's conclusion determined that both Gracie and fellow American Ashley Wagner will compete against a field of Russian jumping dynamos in Barcelona... so that should be very interesting.

I was heartily disappointed for World Silver Medallist Alena Leonova at Skate Canada. She skated a brilliant short program in Kelowna but a disappointing free skate dropped her down to sixth place. At this event, Alena again went out and delivered a flawless and thoroughly entertaining "Chaplin" short program with her usual flair and a triple toe/triple toe, triple flip and double axel to boot. Her score of 68.11 was just 0.5 behind Gracie Gold in the short... with a lower PCS score (what? WHAT?). In the free skate, like Gold Leonova wasn't perfect, but she fought through the performance even if the jumps weren't all there. Her opening triple toe/triple toe was nicely done, as was a triple flip/double toe later in the program. She was appropriately well rewarded for the strength of her choreography with a PCS score of 62.06 and although third in the free skate, her overall score of 186.40 was enough for silver. A great showing for Leonova and a firm message that she's still very much a name in the game.

Satoko Miyahara finished third at Skate Canada but on home turf in Japan, I expected her to pull out all of the stops. She stayed on her feet in the short program even if a couple of the landings looked very iffy and stood in fourth place heading into the free skate with a score of 60.69. Like her competitors, she wasn't perfect in the free skate but she did stay on her feet, perform a nice triple lutz and double axel/triple toe and keep the energy and attack going throughout her "Miss Saigon" program. Her technical score in the free skate was actually higher than any of the ladies including Gold, but a PCS score of 57.99 kept her in second in the free skate and third overall. Interestingly, this will be the first year in over a decade that a Grand Prix Final will be held without a Japanese lady competing but if you look at the strong performances of skaters like Miyahara, fourth place finisher Kanako Murakami, fifth place finisher Riona Kato and of course, Rika Hongo who took the gold at the Rostelecom Cup, I don't think it's fair to say that Japanese ladies skating is in any draught after the retirements of Mao Asada, Miki Ando and Akiko Suzuki. It's just another chapter starting.

Canada would be represented in the ladies event by Gabby Daleman. Her first Grand Prix event was the LEXUS Cup Of China, where she finished a strong fifth in her senior Grand Prix debut. Problems on all three of her jumping passes in the short program left her in seventh place with a score of 53.46 but great attack and difficulty in terms of her base mark in the free skate were her friend. She landed a nice triple lutz and a pair of triple salchows and kept on her feet in her double axel/triple toe attempt to move up from seventh to sixth place overall with a score of 164.74, ahead of some very talented skaters in their own rights like Polina Edmunds (eighth), Christina Gao (ninth) and Anna Ovcharova (eleventh).

Russians Ksenia Stolbova and Fedor Klimov and Chinese pairs Peng Cheng and Zhang Hao and Sui Wenjing and Han Cong having already secured their tickets to the Barcelona Grand Prix Final, it would come down to the results at this event to determine the three teams that would ultimately join them.

Canadians Meagan Duhamel and Eric Radford convincingly won Skate Canada in British Columbia with an impressive score of 210.74. Believe it or not, even in their previous partnerships, neither Duhamel or Radford had ever participated in this particular Grand Prix event and did they ever make an incredible first impression. The picture of consistency, the Canadians again reeled off another clean short program with a throw triple lutz, side by side triple lutzes and a triple twist. Let's think about just how difficult that is for a second. Lutzes. Plural. Their score of 72.70 gave them a decisive lead heading into the free skate. Despite a fall on their valiant throw quad salchow attempt, Duhamel and Radford delivered a strong free skate with side by side triple lutzes but programs on some of their other jumping elements gave them a score of 199.78, which was enough for the gold medal even if it was a bit lower than in Kelowna.

Russians Yuko Kavaguti and Alexander Smirnoff rebounded brilliantly from a missed season due to injury with a spectacular win in Chicago at Skate America. Their short program here was indeed clean but they did look a little tight on a couple of the elements. Their score of 64.60 in that part of the competition gave them some ground to make up if they hoped to challenge the Canadians and unfortunately, they weren't able to do it. They finished third in the free skate but by 1.60 held on to the silver medal when programs on the opening side by side triple toe into triple toe sequence kind of snowballed into more programs. Like Duhamel and Radford, they too tried the quad salchow and I'm interested to hear your thoughts on the comparison of both attempts! They both looked gutsy to me! This team did rebound nicely with a throw triple loop at the end of their program but unfortunately, I thought as compared to Skate America the effect of the program suffered a bit with the mistakes from a PCS perspective at this event. Their final score was 183.60, over twenty five points back of their score at Skate America in Chicago.

At the Cup Of China, Xiaoyu Yu and Yang Jin won the silver medal but up against the Russians and Canadians at this event, things wouldn't prove to be as easy for the talented young pair. A problem on the throw in the short program kept them below their competitors but from a technical perspective, this pair really brought it in the free skate, their only mistake a foot down on their final throw, the throw triple flip. Their score of 182.00 was enough for bronze overall... and enough to assure that they'd join two other strong Chinese pair teams at the Grand Prix Final. Not too shabby, I'd say! My one criticism of this team really comes back to their short program... if you're going to pick really rich, textured music like that piece from Dead Can Dance, you need the costumes and expression to sell it a lot more. It's lovely choreography by David Wilson, but the skating needs to reach the performance level to really sell the program.

With four ice dance teams (Chock and Bates, Papadakis and Cizeron, the Shibutani's and Gilles and Poirier) already having qualified for the Grand Prix Final, two spots remained up for grabs.

As winners of Skate Canada and the current World Silver Medallists, Kaitlyn Weaver and Andrew Poje were the clear favourites for ice dance gold. The title wouldn't be a cake walk for the team though as they faced some excellent competition in Japan. Their score of 171.10 in Kelowna would be difficult for them to duplicate or exceed, They didn't quite do it, achieving a total winning score of 169.42,., but they didn't phone in their performances in Osaka either. Their free dance, in particular, is just simply put exquisite. Wonderful musicality and edges and interesting transitions and hold changes punctuate the choreography nicely and I love how the problem builds in intensity towards that final rotational lift. They'll move along to the Grand Prix Final along with Russian pair Elena Ilinykh and Ruslan Zhiganshin, who edged into the final spot.

Russians Ksenia Monko and Kirill Khaliavan had a disappointing outing at their first Grand Prix event when they produced a strong second place short dance but pandered their way off the podium with a sixth place finish in the free dance. It was kind of the other way around at this event where they moved up in the standings rather than down with a second place finish in the free dance and a silver medal overall. I really liked how seamlessly this team worked their twizzles into their "Sarabande" free dance as well as the nice passion throughout, even if the program itself wasn't particularly innovative. Again, like I said at Skate Canada, I thought that Kirill really carried this team.

Americans Kaitlyn Hawayek and Jean-Luc Baker were the surprise bronze medallists at this event, moving up from fourth to third based on the strength of their "Romeo And Juliet" free dance. As I've said many times before about this team, they somewhat remind me of a young Tessa and Scott and I really have to swoon over Jean-Luc's knees and edges. I'm actually quite a big fan of the free dance's lifts in particular and think this team is definitely one we'll see get rewarded more and more as the tides in ice dance continue to turn. Their overall score was 146.41 and the fact they finished ahead of the Germans at this event is a clear sign the judges like what they see.

Britons Penny Coomes and Nicholas Buckland performed well at the Rostelecom Cup, so well in fact they won the bronze medal there. In Osaka the team started strongly with a second place finish in the short dance, but their free dance just seemed a little off from start to finish at this event. The twizzles weren't their best and unfortunately a rather rough fall from Nicholas really disrupted the flow of the program... a shame because compared to how they skated at Rostelecom that Muse free dance has so much potential. A sixth place finish in the free dance dropped them down to fifth overall with a score of 137.88.

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