Jason Brown’s big chance at NHK Trophy; preview, schedule

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For the third time in four years, Jason Brown has a great shot to qualify for the six-skater Grand Prix Final, the most exclusive event in figure skating.

He can clinch a Grand Prix Final berth for the first time this week at NHK Trophy in Japan, live on the Olympic Channel: Home of Team USA.

The Grand Prix Final, held every December, takes the top six men from the fall Grand Prix series, where skaters can compete twice and then are ranked by combined results.

Usually, a skater must make the podium in both qualifiers to reach the Grand Prix Final.

Grand Prix Final berths are most important in the Olympic season for Americans. U.S. Figure Skating will name the three-man Olympic team after the U.S. Championships in January. The picks will be based on not only nationals results but also recent domestic and international performances.

In 2014, Brown was the youngest U.S. Olympic male singles skater since 1976. Later that year, Brown missed the Grand Prix Final by .16 of a point. He took silver at his first qualifier but stumbled to fifth at his second event.

Olympic champion Yuzuru Hanyu eked out that last 2014 Grand Prix Final spot over Brown by finishing fourth at NHK Trophy. Hanyu and Brown will go head-to-head this week at NHK with Grand Prix Final berths again at stake.

In 2015, Brown would have made the Grand Prix Final with a runner-up finish at NHK Trophy. But he withdrew before the event with a back injury.

Then last season, Brown would have made the Grand Prix Final by placing third at NHK. But he was seventh, slowed by right leg soreness that eventually developed into a stress fracture.

Brown’s Grand Prix Final fate will mostly or fully be decided at NHK again this week. He was second at Skate Canada last month. That means Brown will almost surely qualify for the Grand Prix Final if he’s second again this week.

He could even make it with a fourth- or fifth-place finish, depending on how the rest of the Grand Prix season plays out.

Brown is definitely a podium favorite this week.

Besides Hanyu and Brown, only one other man at NHK ranked in the top 12 in the world last season — 2016 U.S. champion Adam Rippon, competing at the top international level for the first time in 11 months due to a broken foot.

NHK Trophy broadcast schedule (all times Eastern)
Friday (Short Programs)
Pairs — 12:30 a.m.
Women — 2 a.m.
Men — 5 a.m.
Ice Dance — 11 p.m.

Saturday (Free Skates)
Pairs — 12:30 a.m.
Women — 3 a.m.
Men — 5:30 a.m.
Ice Dance — 10 p.m.

NBC will air a recap show Saturday at at 1:30 p.m.

Men
Hanyu thrives in front of home fans. He’s going for a three-peat at NHK, where he shattered Patrick Chan‘s world record score two years ago and routed an up-and-coming Nathan Chen in 2016.

Hanyu was beaten by two-time world champion Javier Fernandez and Chen at his first two events this season, but he always gets off to slow starts. Nobody in this week’s field is an Olympic medal favorite. Hanyu won’t see them again until the Grand Prix Final next month.

The real intrigue is between Brown and Rippon, the next two strongest men in the field. A clutch performance from Brown to all but qualify for the Grand Prix Final could really boost his credentials to U.S. Figure Skating’s Olympic selection committee.

Rippon did qualify for last year’s Grand Prix Final before breaking his foot. If he outscores Brown at NHK, the 27-year-old will go into Skate America in two weeks looking to qualify for the Final again.

After Chen, the race for the last two U.S. Olympic men’s spots appears to be among Brown, Rippon, Vincent Zhou and Max Aaron. NHK is a chance for Brown and Rippon to further make their cases.

Women
The competition here also appears to be for silver and bronze. Russian Yevgenia Medvedeva, the biggest Olympic gold-medal favorite across all figure skating events, goes for her 11th win in 12 career top-level senior international events.

Carolina Kostner is the second-ranked woman this Grand Prix season. Satoko Miyahara ranked No. 2 last fall. They’re both in this week’s field. Kostner, 30, can pretty much wrap up her first Grand Prix Final berth in six years with a podium.

Miyahara is competing for the first time since December due to a fractured hip. Once the biggest threat to Medvedeva, Miyahara is now in a fight to make the two-woman Japanese Olympic team.

Mariah Bell and Mirai Nagasu are also on the Olympic bubble. The third- and fourth-place finishers from last season’s nationals were sixth and ninth at their Grand Prix openers last month. This might be the last time we see them before the U.S. Championships.

Pairs
World champions Sui Wenjing and Han Cong are big favorites for a second win in as many weeks. They posted the best score in the world this season — by nearly seven points — at home in Beijing last weekend.

Olympic silver medalists Ksenia Stolbova and Fedor Klimov were a distant second in the Grand Prix opener last month. Another runner-up here will likely be enough to reach the Grand Prix Final for the first time since winning it in 2015.

Americans Alexa Scimeca Knierim and Christopher Knierim return to the Grand Prix after missing all of last fall due to her life-threatening abdominal condition. It won’t take much for the Knierims to strengthen their hold atop U.S. pairs given what we’ve seen from the others so far this fall. The U.S. has one pairs spot for PyeongChang.

Ice Dance
Tessa Virtue 
and Scott Moir are undefeated in their comeback after sitting out the 2014-15 and 2015-16 seasons, but they are not the top-ranked couple in the world going into their second Grand Prix this season.

That’s because world silver medalists Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron of France snatched the world record last week.

The two couples won’t face off until the Grand Prix Final next month, but no doubt Virtue and Moir are competing against that score (200.43) at NHK.

Meanwhile, U.S. bronze medalists Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue bid for a third straight trip to the Grand Prix Final. They need a runner-up here to keep that hope alive.

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