VANCOUVER, British Columbia — There's another battle brewing on the ice in Canada. And this one's a three-man fight.
Reigning Olympic champion Evgeni Plushenko posted a monster 90.85 points early in the men's short program Tuesday night and then sat back, 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.
"The first fight was won," Plushenko said, "but the big fight is to come."
Lysacek is just .55 points behind Plushenko with Takahashi another .05 back going into Thursday night's free skate. The margins are so small, the three may as well be tied.
"He has one major advantage over everyone, and that's an Olympic gold medal," Lysacek said. "He has power mentally because he has what we all want. I think it's going to take some mighty fine skating to get that power away from him."
It's going to take some mighty fine skating just to top what these three did Tuesday night.
This men's competition has been eagerly 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. He also wants to continue Russia's 16-year winning streak in the Olympic men's event.
Plushenko set the tone with a majestic program almost worthy of beating his world record from last month's European championships. Turin runner-up Stephane Lambiel couldn't match it. Neither could Canada's great hope Patrick Chan. Former world champ Brian Joubert fell apart.
But Lysacek and Takahashi made it clear that Plushenko wouldn't be able to saunter off with the gold medal the way he did in 2006.
"I thought that with each Olympics it will become easier to compete," said Plushenko, who has a silver from the 2002 Games. "But apparently it's getting harder."
Lambiel is fifth, but he won the silver medal at last month's European championships from the same spot. Three-time U.S. champion Johnny Weir is sixth, followed by Chan.
"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."
After the Turin Olympics, with bum knees and nothing more to prove, Plushenko 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.
His jumps were impressive, as always. He landed his quadruple toe loop-triple toe combination 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 Tuesday night, looking deep into every camera he passed. His seductive body language and bedroom eyes matched his passionate "Concierto de Aranjuez" perfectly, and he even flirted with the judges a bit.
Those transition marks that caused such a firestorm last week? They were appropriately lower than the rest of his component marks. Plushenko does a bunch of big tricks in a row early in his program, and he needs to generate a lot of speed to pull them off. There's no room for intricate steps, and his scores reflected that.
"I don't care today about transitions and the scoring system. I did a clean program and that's important to me," Plushenko said. "This is my third Olympic Games and I skated not bad. I'll take any result in the Olympic Games."
When Plushenko finished, he drew an imaginary sword, kissed it and then put it back in its sheath. In case the crowd – and maybe his competitors, too – didn't get the message, he did it two more times before leaving the ice.
But this fight isn't over – not by a long shot.
"I've grown up really coming through the ranks admiring his skating and watching him dominate the skating world," Lysacek said. "For all of us to have the opportunity to compete with him maybe this one last time – who knows – is kind of special."
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. That's a lot of pressure to put on his slim shoulders, and coach Frank Carroll grabbed him around both arms to give him a last-second pep talk before he went on the ice.
Lysacek responded superbly. His "Firebird" program was powerful and spellbinding, a perfect mix of athleticism and artistry.
Every single one of his jumps was done with silky smoothness, his landings so secure the tracings could have been the work of a master etcher. His intensity was almost intimidating, and his interpretation would put any virtuoso to shame. His leg kicks, dramatic arm movements – everything was done on a note, making his music as much a part of his program as any technical skill.
"I had some pressure coming in as a reigning world champion and I felt it. I also had a monkey on my back thinking of my short program four years ago in Torino," said Lysacek, who was 10th in the short in 2006 after botching two jumps. "To be able to go out and silence all of that really felt good."
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."
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.
Had he included a quad in the program – he's more than capable of doing them, and likely will have one in the free skate – he could have been ahead of Plushenko and Lysacek. His component mark – the old artistic score – was more than a point and a half better than Plushenko's.
"I think it's necessary for competing in something like the Olympics," Takahashi said. "For me and for my success, I think it's important to work on the quad and it's important for the future of the sport."