U.S. Figure Skating Championships ice dance preview

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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 | STREAM LINKSTART ORDER
Saturday
Pairs free skate; free dance — 3-6 p.m. ET, NBC | STREAM LINK

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