Caydee Denney, John Coughlin

Preview: Two former winning teams face off at U.S. Figure Skating Championships in pairs

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Two Olympic spots are at stake in pairs skating this weekend at the U.S. Championships in Boston and two top teams enter into the National Championships having won the event the last time they skated it.

For defending champions Marissa Castelli and Simon Shnapir, it was a year ago that they captured their first-ever national title, while the duo of Caydee Denney and John Coughlin won in 2012, sitting out the competition last year due to injury.

The pairs teams will face a host of competition for berths at the Sochi Olympics during the four-day event at the TD Garden which begins Thursday afternoon and concludes Saturday in the pairs event.

For Denney/Coughlin, the appearance at Nationals marks a continued comeback after a torn labrum in Coughlin’s hip (the same injury that put Evan Lysacek out of the Sochi Games) set the team out following a successful Grand Prix season in 2012.

U.S. Figure Skating Championships Previews: Men | Women | Ice Dance | Pairs | Schedule

The Colorado-based team could not defend their national title in Omaha in January and sat out the World Championships in March. But they’ve made marked improvements during the Grand Prix season in 2013, placing fourth at Skate America befor winning bronze at the Grand Prix of France.

“Our technical element score (TES) was at its highest in Paris, [but] we stay humble and continue to work,” Coughlin said on a conference call with reporters. “We’re honest with ourselves and focused on showing that we are an elite team. Our confidence is high after being the best American team on the Grand Prix [this season].”

Castelli/Shnapir would like to prove Coughlin wrong in front of a home crowd in Boston. The team – which has a height diffence of 16 inches (Marissa is 5’0” and Simon is 6’4”) – had a less convincing Grand Prix effort in 2013, missing the podium in both Detroit (sixth) and Tokyo (fourth).

“We’re thrilled that the Championships are here in our backyard,” Shnapir told journalists recently. “Training has been going well and we’ve been working hard going through our programs and sections every single day. We’ve just been drilling everything and feel ready to go.”

Shnapir would be making a return to a different backyard should he and Castelli qualify for the Winter Games: the 26-year-old was born in Moscow before moving to the U.S. with his family when he was just 18 months old, but speaks Russian and would have family members attend in Sochi.

While Denney/Coughlin and Castelli/Shnapir are the clear front-runners to earn the two allotted spots in pairs, there are a host of other teams that will try and throw a wrench in their compatriots’ Olympic plans.

Alexa Scimeca and Chris Knierim, who paired up less than two years ago, were second at Nationals a year ago and had two Grand Prix assignments during the Olympic season, placing fifth at the cup of China and then sixth in Moscow at the Cup of Russia.

Felicia Zhang and Nate Bartholomay, the bronze medalists from the 2013 Nationals, struggled during the Grand Prix season, placing seventh at Skate America and sixth at the Cup of China.

Haven Denney and Brandon Frazier could be the most competitive of the outliers, having placed fifth at both of their Grand Prix assignments. The duo began skating together in 2004 after switching to the ice from roller skating.

Haven is the younger sister to Caydee, meaning a little sibling rivalry could come alive at the TD Garden – or a duo of siblings might be headed to the Olympics not named Shibutani (Maia and Alex, ice dancers).

But the home-ice advantage is something that Castelli hopes to use her own family for in her and Shnapir’s advantage, even if it means a little added pressure during an Olympic season.

“Skating in our hometown is the best advantage that we could have,” Castelli said. “At first I was really nervous, it was really terrifying. But it’s such a blessing to have everyone who supports me come and cheer me on and share this moment with me; it’s going to be so much more motivating. We’re extremely excited.”

The pairs kick off the senior Nationals competition at 4:15 p.m. on Thursday in Boston. NBC will air live coverage of the pairs free skate Saturday afternoon from 3 to 6 p.m. Eastern, as well as host a livestream of the event on NBCOlympics.com.

Denney/Coughlin worked through injury together

U.S. Figure Skating Championships men’s preview

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The stage is set for Nathan Chen in Kansas City this week.

The 17-year-old is arguably the biggest favorite of any senior discipline at the U.S. Championships, looking to become the youngest U.S. men’s champion since 1966.

Chen, who boasts six quadruple jumps between his two programs, broke out at the Grand Prix Final in December by taking a silver medal. That propelled him to the top of U.S. men’s skating.

He outscored the reigning Olympic and world champions in the free skate at the Grand Prix Final in the best U.S. men’s international performance since Evan Lysacek won Olympic gold in 2010.

Chen’s chances for gold this week were boosted by the withdrawal of 2016 U.S. champion and training partner Adam Rippon due to a broken foot. And by 2015 U.S. champion Jason Brown‘s recent right leg injury.

Brown is still in the field, though, as is 2013 U.S. champion Max Aaron. Chen, Brown and Aaron are vying for two spots on the team for the world championships in two months in Helsinki.

“Those are the very clear top three,” NBC Olympics analyst Johnny Weir said. “It’ll take a disaster or a performance of a lifetime for anybody else to get into that top three.”

Friday
Men’s short program — 8:30 p.m.-midnight ET, Universal HD
Sunday
Men’s free skate — 4-6 p.m., NBC

MORE: U.S. Championships broadcast schedule
PREVIEWS: Men | Women | Pairs | Ice Dance

Nathan Chen
Age: 17
Hometown: Salt Lake City
2016 Grand Prix Final silver medalist
2016 U.S. bronze medalist
Two-time U.S. junior and novice champion

Chen came back strong this season following the first major injury of his career suffered at least year’s nationals exhibition. Hip surgery kept Chen from making his world championships debut in 2016, but he’s now poised to lead the U.S. men into Helsinki, trying to earn three Olympic berths. First, Chen goes for his first senior national title.

Tara Lipinski’s Take: Nathan is the star of the show this year. The type of talent he has doesn’t come along every day. He possibly could be on the Olympic podium next year with the technical skating he’s giving us. Artistically, his component scores, if you look at him from last nationals to this nationals, he’s a different skater. He may not be [Olympic champion Yuzuru] Hanyu yet, but he has all the makings of a great, artistic male skater. I think he’s already giving us enough, to be honest.

Jason Brown
Age: 22
Hometown: Colorado Springs
2015 U.S. champion
Fourth at 2015 World Championships

Don’t forget that Brown was one spot off the podium at the 2015 Worlds. It’s been mostly a nightmare since for the 2014 Olympic sensation. Brown missed the 2016 U.S. Championships with a back strain and revealed last week that he was off the ice for the last two weeks of December with a stress fracture in his right fibula. Brown is the only man in this week’s field who has been within 40 points of Chen’s best total score this season.

Johnny Weir’s Take: Now that Adam Rippon is out, the artistic challenger, if he can land a quad, is Jason Brown. He’s won the national title before. He knows what it takes and what that kind of pressure feels like. That is an advantage he has over Nathan Chen. If he lands the quad and creates that artistic moment, he is very favored in the U.S. by the judging panel. He will need a quad toe loop if he’s going to hold off Nathan Chen.

Max Aaron
Age: 24
Hometown: Colorado Springs
2013 U.S. champion
2015 Skate America champion

Aaron may be the best pure athlete in the field. He has finished in the top four at nationals each of the last four years, but it’ll probably take top two this week to earn a world championships spot. He’ll likely have to beat the injured Brown.

Johnny Weir’s Take: He has great skating skills. He’s a wonderful athlete. But I don’t think his free program especially is strong enough choreographically to challenge either Nathan Chen or Jason Brown.

Grant Hochstein
Age: 26
Hometown: Artesia, Calif.
Fourth at 2016 U.S. Championships
10th at 2016 World Championships

Hochstein was placed on the 2016 World Championships team after Chen withdrew due to that hip injury. He finished a respectable 10th in his worlds debut but dropped to 11th in each of his fall Grand Prix starts. Hochstein ranks seventh this season among men in the U.S. Championships field.

Tim Dolensky
Age: 24
Hometown: Kennesaw, Ga.
Seventh at 2016 U.S. Championships

Dolensky had his best U.S. Championships finish last season and ranks behind only Chen, Brown, Rippon and Aaron among U.S. skaters’ top scores this season.

Vincent Zhou
Age: 16
Hometown: Riverside, Calif.
2013 U.S. junior champion
Fifth at 2016 World Junior Championships

Zhou would be a bigger threat if he hadn’t pulled out of his last event in December with a leg injury. Still, he has the jumping firepower, when he lands them, to contend for the podium when healthy.

MORE: Wagner, Chen share training ice, favorite status at nationals

U.S. Figure Skating Championships ice dance preview

CHICAGO, IL - OCTOBER 23:  Maia Shibutani and Alex Shibutani of the U.S. perform at the Smucker's Skating Spectacular at 2016 Progressive Skate America at Sears Centre Arena on October 23, 2016 in Chicago, Illinois.  (Photo by Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images)
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There is little doubt who are the top three U.S. ice dance couples. The mystery is the order they’ll finish at the U.S. Championships this week.

In its deepest figure skating discipline, the U.S. put three in the top six at the 2016 World Championships. All of them return to Kansas City for nationals — Maia and Alex ShibutaniMadison Chock and Evan Bates and Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue.

The U.S. ice dance order of finish used to be very predictable — Meryl Davis and Charlie White followed by Chock and Bates, then the Shibutani siblings and then Hubbell and Donohue.

When Davis and White took a break after winning Sochi Olympic gold (still on that break), everybody moved up one place. But things started changing last season.

The Shibutanis jumped past Chock and Bates at the 2016 U.S. Championships, then earned silver at worlds, one spot ahead of Chock and Bates.

Then last month, Hubbell and Donohue edged past Chock and Bates at the Grand Prix Final by .27 of a point. Will the tide continue to shift in Kansas City?

“Dance is always so predictable, but it’s getting less and less each year,” NBC Olympics analyst Tara Lipinski said.

MORE: U.S. Championships broadcast schedule
PREVIEWS: Men | Women | Pairs | Ice Dance

Friday
Short dance — 6-8 p.m. ET, NBCSN
Saturday
Pairs free skate; free dance — 3-6 p.m. ET, NBC

Maia Shibutani/Alex Shibutani
Ages: 22/25
Hometown: Canton, Mich.
2016 World silver medalists
2011 World bronze medalists
2016 U.S. champions

The Shibutani siblings went five years between world championships podiums, a jaw-dropping achievement in ice dance. They’re chasing the top Canadian and French couples internationally, but they haven’t been outscored by a U.S. couple since December 2015.

Johnny Weir’s Take: In ice dancing, there aren’t a lot of successful stories that include a brother and a sister. It’s definitely a testament to them and their personalities that they are so accepted all over the world, given the fact that ice dance is so political, they are brother and sister and they can’t do romantic themes, which is something that is so prevalent in ice dance.

Madison Chock/Evan Bates
Ages: 24/27
Hometown: Novi, Mich.
2015 World silver medalists
2016 World bronze medalists
2015 U.S. champions

Chock and Bates have trickled down since leading the 2015 World Championships after the short dance. First, the French Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron snatched the world title. Then the Shibutanis topped them for the 2016 U.S. title. Then Hubbell and Donohue relegated Chock and Bates to last place at the Grand Prix Final last month.

Johnny Weir’s Take: Tara and I disagree on this, but Chock and Bates are still trying to find themselves musically. I think that their programs this year, they don’t feel quite them. They feel a little bit more rehearsed than a natural, flowing emotion. But, technically, they are the strongest team in the U.S. Their skills are sublime, their edge quality and their lifts.

Madison Hubbell/Zachary Donohue
Ages: 25/26
Hometown: Montreal
Three-time U.S. bronze medalists
2016 Skate America silver medalists

Can they beat one of the two 2016 World medalists again? If not, Hubbell and Donohue will be hoping more than anybody else that the Olympic champions Davis and White do not return to competition. The U.S. can qualify no more than three ice dance couples for the 2018 Olympics.

Johnny Weir’s Take: They really believe their artistry. They are so emotional when they skate. They take it so seriously. Technically, they have big hurdles to cross, looking at Chock and Bates and the Shibutanis. But the artistic side, they can create a moment when you’re least expecting it.

Kaitlin Hawayek/Jean-Luc Baker
Ages: 20/23
Hometown: Bloomfield Hills, Mich.
2014 World junior champions

Hard to believe the best junior couple in the world three years ago has little chance of making the senior worlds, but that’s how strong U.S. ice dance is at the moment. However, Hawayek and Baker’s top score this season is only 2.23 points fewer than the best from Hubbell and Donohue.

Elliana Pogrebinsky/Alex Benoit
Ages: 18/21
Hometown: Novi, Mich.
Fourth at 2016 World Junior Championships

They finished third at junior nationals the last two years but rank No. 5 among U.S. senior scores this season, their first on the senior scene. A couple to watch for the future.

MORE: The latest on future thoughts for Davis, White