Plushenko edges impressive Lysacek in short
Top three skaters separated by just 0.60
|Short program leader Evgeni Plushenko appears in for a fight for the gold medal. (Getty Images)|
Competing in perhaps the deepest men's field in history, the mighty Russian has just a 0.55-point lead over Evan Lysacek going in to Thursday's free skate.
Daisuke Takahashi is third, a scant 0.05 behind Lysacek.
At the 2006 Olympics, Plushenko had a 10-point lead after the short. But the 27-year-old, returning to competition this season after a three-year hiatus, said he didn't expect it to be easy.
"Every time at the Olympic Games, it is hard to skate," Plushenko said. "Brian Joubert, [Stephane] Lambiel, Patrick Chan, [Daisuke] Takahashi -- there are a lot of good skaters here. You don't know who is going to win. Anybody can win; that's competition.
"It's not easy, never. If someone says they are not nervous, it is easy, they are not tired, that is not true. All the time it is hard. Of course, for me it is harder, because I have not been [competing]."
Plushenko's short, to Rodrigo's classic "Concierto de Aranjuez," was bang, bang, bang, with three jumping passes -- a powerful quad toe-triple toe combination; solid triple Axel; and triple Lutz -- racking up 32 points right out of the starting gate.
After that, there was little doubt the skater would use his outsize personality and commanding presence to compensate for any deficiencies in choreographic details. He earned 90.85 points, a shade lower than his score at the European Championships last month.
Plushenko's choreography, decried as simple and gimmicky as far back as the last Olympic cycle, is getting renewed criticism from some quarters for a lack of transitions and focus on jumps. Certainly, it has been all the talk in the media room and mixed zone here.
The Russian's overall program components score, 39.75, was 2.25 lower than Lysacek's. His mark for transitions was 6.80, versus the 7.50 he received at Europeans.
"These people say, no quad, clean skating with triple jumps," Alexei Mishin, Plushenko's coach of 15 years, said. "I think that's wrong. Skating without a quad is [going back] to the time before [Elvis] Stojko...It's a shame for skaters to go without a quad when Stojko 10 years before did it. Quads are a sign of the Olympic slogan ['Faster, higher, stronger']."
The top skaters' were bracketed by the unseeded Plushenko, who skated tenth in the order, and Lysacek, who was seeded and drew to skate in the final group.
Lysacek delivered a spectacular performance to Stravinsky's "Firebird," chock full of the transitions and linking footwork Plushenko's choreography lacks.
While the U.S. world champion did not attempt a quad, he opened with a strong triple Axel, a sterling triple Lutz, triple toe and triple flip, all gaining positive grades of execution. His 90.30 points was a new personal best, outpacing the mark he set winning the Grand Prix Final in December.
"I did have some pressure, coming in as world champion," Lysacek said. "I also had that monkey on my back, a little, from my [poor] short program in Torino. That was one of the worst short programs of my life; now, this is one of the best."
Lysacek, suffering from a sore left foot, is not planning a quad in his free skate.
"I don't think there's any one element in my free skate that's more important than another," he said. "It's just as difficult to have the kind of intricate program I have, with the difficult transitions, than to do a quad.
"I've worked on the quad a lot over the years; unfortunately, my foot didn't hold up on me here."
Takahashi, the Japanese champion who sat out last season after tearing ligaments in his right knee, also put out a thriller of a program to the fast-paced "Eye" by Coba.
Like Lysacek, he did not include a quad, although he plans one in his free skate.
"For me, since the  Nagano Olympics, so many people try the quad jump," Takahashi said. "To me it is necessary for the Olympics and for my personal success to include a quad jump in my performance."
Takahashi's teammate, Nobunari Oda, performed a dramatic short to "Totentanz," hitting all of his elements, but his program lacked some of the flair of the top skaters' efforts. He earned 84.85 points for fourth place.
Lambiel, the two-time Swiss world champion, sits fifth after a low landing on his quad toe loop forced him to reduce the second jump in his combination to a double toe.
The two-time world champion from Switzerland did not try a triple Axel, settling for a double, but his masterful spins -- including a spectacular flying sit spin and closing combination capped by a headless scratch -- brought the crowd to its feet. He is fifth with 84.63 points, some 6.22 off the lead.
Johnny Weir kept himself in the mix with a stylish rendition of his Latin-themed short to Raul DiBlasio's "I Love You, I Hate You" that struck a note with the crowd and earned 82.10 points for sixth place.
"I actually had fun out there tonight," Weir said. "I felt like I really skated with my heart...That was my goal, to show people my heart."
The three-time U.S. champion lost ground on his triple flip when the technical panel gave him an "e" for an incorrect outside edge take-off.
"I tend to do a flip from the wrong edge," Weir said. "It's unfortunate, and I've tried hard to fix it, but I'm old and you can't teach an old dog new tricks...I really don't care, as long as it's pretty and as long as I don't land on my [backside]."
Canadian world silver medalist Patrick Chan is seventh with 81.12 after putting a foot down on the landing of his triple Axel and gaining a one-point deduction for a time violation.
A few favorites faltered.
Two-time U.S. champion Jeremy Abbott, who has looked strong in practices here, is 15th after popping his triple Axel into a single and doubling an intended triple Lutz.
"I don't know what happened," Abbott said. "I'm still trying to figure it out. My heart is broken. I've been training so well, and I felt so good coming in."
Brian Joubert, who has said for years his career hinged on winning the gold medal here, will have to make peace with missing the podium.
The Frenchman, who won worlds in 2007, is mired in 18th place after turning out of a quad and falling on a triple Lutz.