Patrick Chan sits in second place going into Friday’s free program in Sochi

It was as expected in the men’s short program: Patrick Chan and Yuzuru Hanyu of Japan have locked horns and left the rest of the field scrambling to catch up. With 11 points for them to make up, it’s a tough task.

The Toronto-trained Hanyu was spectacular and relaxed to set a world record of 101.45 points in the short and he’s now the first man to crack the 100 threshold in the short program.

Chan made a bobble on his nemesis jump, the triple Axel, and finished with 97.52, still only about four points off Hanyu’s pace.

Behind Hanyu, Chan, nine men are within 3 ½ points of each other in an intense battle for the bronze medal, starting with two-time European champion Javier Fernandez of Spain in third with 86.98 points and stretching down to Japanese skater Tatsuki Machida in 11th with 83.48 points.

Canadian silver medalist Kevin Reynolds saw his quad Salchow slip away from him and then his triple Axel (both under-rotated) and is currently in 17th place. He’d hoped for more, after finishing fifth at the world championships last March, but boot problems all season have made preparation difficult.

Liam Firus finished 28th after missing his triple Axel and failed to make the cut for the long program. Only the top 24 advance. “I couldn’t get comfortable,” Firus said. “I was just nervous and had jittery legs.” He’d never been to a world championship and had only one Grand Prix event.

But the big shocker of the day was the withdrawal of 2006 Olympic champion Evgeny Plushenko, who had helped Russia win gold in the team event. He had already been complaining of his back pinching him when he doubled a couple of jumps in the team long program.

But on Wednesday, during practice, Plushenko fell on a quad toe and immediately felt a problem in his back. He practiced the morning of the short program, but did no jumps at all. He said he couldn’t. “I skated maybe seven minutes maximum,” he said. “I tried and tried and tried today.”

In the warm-up before the short program, Plushenko did a triple loop and a triple Lutz, but when he stepped out of his first triple Axel attempt, he felt “terrible pain” in his leg. The second one, his body twisted and he had a terrible landing on it. “I couldn’t feel my legs after it. It hurt and that was it. I had to withdraw.”

He admitted he almost cried. The audience went silent after he left the ice. “It’s hard, believe me,” Plushenko said. “This is not how I wanted to end my career.”

Fernandez said he wasn’t surprised by Plushenko’s withdrawal because he had been complaining about his back after the team event. He thought it was too much for him to skate two more programs.

“If I was Plushenko, I would have given my place to another person if I wasn’t 100 per cent. But Plushenko is Plushenko, and he can decide what he can and can’t do.”

Plushenko’s coach Alexei Mishin said that the morning after the free skate of the team event, the Russian skating federation should have made a change, but Plushenko seemed fine after that. “We didn’t do anything that wasn’t fair play.” With Plushenko at out this point, Russia fielded no men’s skater at all.

Hanyu, who started skating because of Plushenko, said he wasn’t even aware of the withdrawal until he went to skate and saw the Plushenko’s name wasn’t on the leaderboard. He was disappointed.

So was Chan, who wished him a quick recovery.

Without Plushenko in the rink, the moments belonged to the top two skaters. Hanyu said he was “over the moon” to break 100 points and even surprised by the score.  “I took it one element at a time,” he said. “I wasn’t trying to clear 100 points. I was just trying to turn in the best performance I possibly could – and I did.”

He didn’t show it, but admitted he was nervous and his legs were shaking. “I was certainly feeling the atmosphere of the Olympics out there,” he said.

Coach Brian Orser told him he was proud of Hanyu. That warmed Hanyu’s heart.

Chan said he didn’t care if he was in second. “It was nice to see a 97 after an 89 in the team event,” he said. “I had a bumble on the Axel, so I am happy with 97.” Chan slightly outscored Hanyu on the components mark: by only .57 points.

He was surprised by Hanyu’s lofty score. “I’m going to pace myself,” Chan said. “I have a plan.”

And he feels he’s in a good spot. He likes being in second place. “I like the chase,” Chan said. “I can enjoy the Olympics during the free skate, while Hanyu has a target on his back. At the Olympics, the target is bigger.”

He said he’s made up four points before in a long program and has “quite an arsenal” to rely on. He said his triple Axel is getting more confident, and bigger. “I got a bit more height and I over rotated on the landing,” he said. “It was a challenge, though, to be honest, doing the short program.”

Chan’s lofty quad toe-triple toe earned him 16.40 points. He supplied one of 19 quads attempted in the event – well 18 with the withdrawal of Plushenko. Only seven completed them, eight if you count Fernandez turning out of his quad Salchow. Those who did were: Hanyu, Chan (in combination), Peter Liebers of Germany, who skated the performance of his life (quad combo), Brian Joubert (quad combo), Alexander Majorov, Machida (quad comb), and Reynolds (quad combo). None of them matched Chan’s mark, although Liebers was closest with 15.69 points.

Reynolds said sadly after the event: “It was a disaster out there. I was coming off such a high after the team event and I felt ready and confident this morning. I lost it on the first jump and it just snowballed from there.”

Among other contenders: Daisuke Takahashi sits in fourth after under-rotating and two footing his quad; Liebers gets fifth, Jason Brown of the United States thrilled the crowd with no quad and is in sixth place: Joubert finally got his first good Olympic skate in four Games to be seventh; the promising 17-year-old Chinese skater Han Yan is eighth, and Denis Ten is ninth after stumbling out of his quad. Machida doubled his Lutz and is 11th.

Shortly after Plushenko withdrew, U.S. champion Jeremy Abbott, a training mate of Chan, fell forward on a quad attempt, drove his hip into the ice and crashed into the boards. He lay there for 15 seconds, and just as everyone thought he was finished, Abbott rolled to his feet and landed a triple Lutz – triple toe loop in the opposite corner. It was a comeback for the ages. Abbott is in 15th place with 72.58 points.

Beverley Smith

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