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Wellman's fantasy skating advice: Grand Prix Final

Last event of 2012 loaded with juicy matchups

Does Tara Wellman believe Ashley Wagner has what it takes to continue her run and take home the gold from the Grand Prix Final?
Does Tara Wellman believe Ashley Wagner has what it takes to continue her run and take home the gold from the Grand Prix Final? (AFP)

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By Tara Wellman, special to icenetwork.com
(12/04/2012) - The Grand Prix Final is upon us!

As skaters from across the world gather in Sochi, Russia, for an "Olympic preview" of sorts, we get set for another big -- and complicated! -- fantasy week. With the best of the best taking to the ice, predicting the outcomes gets even tougher. Any given skater could show up in Sochi ready to throw down the skate of his or her life. It's all about peaking at the right time.

Let's take our educated guesses and see what happens, shall we?

LADIES

Group A - Ashley Wagner, Mao Asada

No surprise here. These two were the "on-paper" top two at the start of the year. Neither has competed with a triple-triple combination this fall, although Wagner has voiced plans to include one at some point this season.

As the events broke down, Asada earned the top short program score (Wagner's best short program score was the third highest), but Wagner topped the entire field with an international season's best free skate and total score. Asada's best free skate? Only good enough for fifth in the world.

Asada is on the comeback trail for sure, but Wagner has laser focus and machine-like technique this season. I'm calling this win for the U.S. champ.

Group B - Akiko Suzuki, Elizaveta Tuktamisheva

If there is an injustice thus far in the ladies events, it's that Suzuki didn't earn a Grand Prix gold. She arguably should have won over Asada at the NHK Trophy, but struggles in the short program this season have kept her from topping the podium.

Tuktamisheva has proven she has some staying power, although it's hard to prove anything in only the second year on the senior circuit. With her teammate Julia Lipnitskaia out of the final with an injury, Little Liza is carrying the Russian torch alone in Sochi.

She's good, but not Suzuki good, especially with the programs the Japanese skater has this year. Tuktamisheva's best score is still six points shy of Suzuki's best, and the latter is primed for a podium spot.

She takes Group B.

Group C - Kiira Korpi, Christina Gao

Word is circulating 'round the social media realm that Korpi has been battling illness and hasn't been able to train. If that's the case, Gao has a wide open door to a fantasy "win."

If Korpi is healthy, she is capable, too, of putting up solid scores. However, based on the latest reports, I'm uncomfortable selecting Korpi when she admittedly isn't 100 percent.

So, Gao it is.

MEN'S

Group A - Yuzuru Hanyu, Patrick Chan

Who to choose: the young, talented, sometimes unpredictable record setter from Japan, or the reigning world champ who, despite early season struggles, still holds the top total score of the year?

This could be tight. At their first events, Hanyu and Chan's scores were separated by just 0.31 points, in favor of Hanyu. Both finished second at those events. In their second Grand Prix competitions, the total scores were still close -- just 1.32 points apart, this time falling in Chan's direction. They both won their second events.

Chan has experience and titles to his name; Hanyu is still a rookie without time-tested nerves of steel.

Who to choose?

In what could be the tightest race Chan has faced in years, I'm picking the reigning Grand Prix champ -- that's Chan -- to repeat.

Group B - Daisuke Takahashi, Takahiko Kozuka

Surprisingly, Takahashi did not win either of his Grand Prix events; Kozuka did, with gold at Skate America. But he struggled in Russia and took the silver.

Takahashi has two silvers to his name, but his scores have gotten stronger; he started the year with 231.75, and earned his way to the final with a 251.51.

Kozuka has been far from perfect, and if Takahashi continues to improve, the Olympic bronze medalist should have no trouble taking Group B.

Group C - Tatsuki Machida, Javier Fernández

Here we have Machida, the surprise winner at the Cup of China, against another surprise winner, Fernández -- over Chan at Skate Canada.

Fernández had a chance to top Chan last year at the same event, but trouble in the free skate kept him from doing so. Not this time. He skated well, but still had room for improvement. He did not improve in Japan, however, finishing off the podium. And yet, Machida's winning score in China was merely four points higher than Fernández's fourth-place score at NHK.

Fernández has the better programs. If he skates well, he'll top Machida.

PAIRS Group A - Tatiana Volosozhar and Maxim Trankov, Vera Bazarova and Yuri Larionov

Boy, will the Russian audience love this matchup!

While Bazarova and Larionov have made marked improvements, they're still a way off from the Russian champs. With two scores in the low 190s, they don't have the firepower to compete with the 200+ scores Volosozhar and Trankov can -- and should -- pull in.

This is Volosozhar and Trankov's title to win.

Group B - Meagan Duhamel and Eric Radford, Qing Pang and Jian Tong

This is an interesting head to head. It's the former class of the field in Pang and Tong against the Canadian duo steadily climbing its way toward the top.

Pang and Tong won gold in China after silver at Skate America, while Duhamel and Radford took home two silver medals (Canada and Japan).

It's hard to trust Pang and Tong's health these days, but they are the grizzled veterans, and they know how to put it on the line on competition day.

Duhamel and Radford, though, have the better season's best score of the two by roughly two points.

This one is tough to call, but I'm giving the upset nod to the Canadians.

Group C - Yuko Kavaguti and Alexander Smirnov, Kirsten Moore-Towers and Dylan Moscovitch

The second Canadian team to make the final, Moore-Towers and Moscovitch have their work cut out for them against the third Russian team in the event. Kavaguti and Smirnov haven't been as sensational as they were to start last season, but they have shown improvement along the way. Their 187.99 at NHK Trophy was enough for gold, although a far cry from the scores of the top teams.

Still, it should be plenty to keep them ahead of Moore-Towers and Moscovitch.

ICE DANCING

Group A - Meryl Davis and Charlie White, Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir, Nathalie Péchalat and Fabian Bourzat

What is this, rematch No. 25 for these three teams? It's amazing the way they've sustained their success. And, as much as Pechalat and Bourzat have improved, they have yet to break that final barrier between themselves and the top two.

Ultimately, it's still a showdown between training mates. Both teams have lovely short dances (with season's best scores less than a point apart!), but it's all about the free dances. Both are trying something new this year. One approach has worked better than the other.

Opinions aside (if that's even possible in ice dance!), the Americans seem to have impressed the judges more. In the second events for both teams, their base value mark was identical; Davis and White, however, pulled more than four points ahead with their grade of execution mark and program components scores.

Don't expect anything less than a battle royale, but I say Davis and White have the edge.

Group B - Ekaterina Bobrova and Dmitri Soloviev, Elena Ilinykh and Nikita Katsalapov, Anna Cappellini and Luca Lanotte

All three of these teams finished with silver at both of their Grand Prix events. All three have season's bests within 1.6 points of one another.

Bobrova and Solviev, though, have been most consistent. They're skating with great confidence and are at home in front of a Russian crowd. Cappellini and Lanotte will put up a valiant fight, but my crystal ball shows the Russians coming out on top in Group B.