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Men hit ice, steal the show

American Evan Lysacek reacts after his short program during the men’s figure skating competition.  (Associated Press)
American Evan Lysacek reacts after his short program during the men’s figure skating competition. (Associated Press)

Plushenko leads, but Lysacek, Takahashi close behind

VANCOUVER, British Columbia – Game on, guys.

Reigning Olympic champion Evgeni Plushenko posted a monster 90.85 points early in the men’s short program Tuesday night, daring the competition to beat it. World champion Evan Lysacek and Japan’s Daisuke Takahashi came pretty darn close, setting up the most riveting men’s final since the “Battle of the Brians” in 1988 – the last time the Olympics were in Canada.

Lysacek is just .55 points behind Plushenko with Takahashi another .05 back going into Thursday night’s free skate. Those margins are so small, the three may as well be tied.

“Easy? That’s competition and it is never going to be easy,” Plushenko said. “If somebody says today, ‘I am not nervous’ or ‘I skate easy,’ or ‘I am not tired,’ I don’t believe him.”

This men’s competition has been widely anticipated, its field stocked with enough talent to carry two Olympics – four world champions, including Plushenko, who came out of retirement to try to become the first man to win back-to-back gold medals since Dick Button in 1952.

Plushenko set the tone with a majestic program almost worthy of beating his world record from last month’s European championships. While Turin runner-up Stephane Lambiel, former world champ Brian Joubert and Canada’s great hope Patrick Chan weren’t up to the challenge, Lysacek and Takahashi made it clear they’re not about to hand over that second gold to Plushenko.

Lysacek was pumping his fists even before he began his final spin. When his music finished, he threw back his head and dropped to his knees, sliding across the ice and burying his head in his hands. He looked a bit dazed by what he had done as he saluted the crowd.

“That’s kind of out of character for me. I couldn’t help it,” Lysacek said. “But I had a really good time.”

Lambiel is fifth, followed by three-time U.S. champion Johnny Weir and Chan. U.S. champion Jeremy Abbott had another big collapse and is 15th. Joubert’s fall was even more shocking and he’s 18th.

“I actually had fun tonight, and that’s something I haven’t been able to say for a long time,” said Weir, who quit for a few weeks last spring after bombing so badly at the U.S. championships he failed to make the world team. “I felt like I really showed my heart.”

Plushenko capped one of the most dominant stretches in the sport with the gold medal at the Turin Olympics. With bum knees and nothing more to prove, the Russian retired. But his new wife urged him to return and, at 27, he might just be better than ever.

As he took the ice, longtime coach Alexei Mishin pumped his fist, as if to tell his star pupil, “Knock ’em dead!”

Not that Plushenko needed any reminders.

Plushenko’s jumps were impressive, as always. His quadruple toe loop-triple toe combination was performed with more ease than some skaters can manage on a single jump. His triple axel was executed with perfect control, so much so he showed off a little, changing his edge back and forth to produce a sassy swerve – in time to the music, no less.

But the best part of his program is still his showmanship. Nobody loves the limelight quite like Plushenko, and he reveled in it, looking deep into every camera he passed.

When Plushenko finished, he drew an imaginary sword, kissed it and then put it back in its sheath.

But this fight isn’t over – not by a long shot.

As the reigning world champion, Lysacek is the United States’ best hope for a gold medal since Brian Boitano won that famous battle at the Calgary Games.

Lysacek skated superbly. His “Firebird” program was powerful and spellbinding, a perfect mix of athleticism and artistry.

Takahashi’s program was completely different than Plushenko’s and Lysacek’s, but no less compelling. It was high-octane from the second he stepped on the ice, so jam-packed there was barely time to breathe, let alone rest. His footwork and spins were innovative, proving there is room for creativity in the current judging system.

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