WASHINGTON - Russian Evgeni Plushenko skated beautifully but not perfectly last night in the men's short program at the world championships, and that is all it took to hold onto the top spot in the men's competition.
Clacking down the post-skate walkway, looking like Prince Valiant from an old comic strip, he pursed his lips and admitted as much.
"I can skate better," he said. "I can skate like I did in qualifying."
In qualifying, Plushenko was mesmerizing. Every jump was perfect, every step was perfect. Last night at MCI Center, he hit his quad toe-triple toe combination without a hitch, but moments later avoided falling out of a triple Axel by pain-filled inches.
"When I jumped on the triple axel, I felt pain in my knee," said Plushenko. "But I did not touch the ice with my body or with my fingertips. It's OK."
It might have opened the door a fraction for Americans Tim Goebel and Michael Weiss, who had yet to skate. It might have, but going into tomorrow's long program, Plushenko leads.
Goebel, who was suffering flu-like symptoms, skated a wonderful, clean program with no mistakes. He landed the difficult combination of a quad Salchow-triple toe and brought the crowd to its feet.
But Goebel could not match Plushenko's footwork and artistry, so he will go into the final performance in second place. Plushenko earned nothing but 5.7s through 5.9s, ranking first with eight of the nine judges.
In third is Japan's Takeshi Honda and in fourth is Michael Weiss, who started the night on an equal footing with Plushenko, as each had won his half of Monday's qualifying round.
It seemed Weiss was on his way to challenging for No. 1 as he blasted through his quad toe-triple toe combination and had the crowd in his hand as he took off for his triple Lutz. And fell.
"It was a silly mistake," said Weiss. "Shock is the only thing I can say. That's the easiest jump in the program. A triple Lutz - I can do a quad Lutz."
Weiss is still in the running for a podium finish, but the gold medal is all but out of reach.
For most skaters, that was true even before the short program. Most of the skaters who performed last night gave their best, just hoping to place among the top 24 in order to make the cut for the long program.
Even the young French skater Brian Joubert, who came here with an outside chance at a medal, knew he was out of the running after Monday.
"You have to be at least fifth after qualifying," said Joubert. "I was ninth. It is hard to go out and perform when you know there is no hope. I go out and think about my performance, but it is very hard."
But you could not tell. He was one of 13 skaters in the 30-man field who attempted quadruple jumps and he landed his to supportive applause as Pink Floyd's "Time" pulsated through the arena.
By the time he finished, he had dazzled with his footwork and spins and received a rousing ovation.
"It was good today," he said. "Monday, it was not."
NOTES: In the ice dancing compulsory dance competition yesterday, medal favorites and 2002 world champions Irina Lobacheva and Illia Averbukh placed first in their half of the compulsories, while their toughest competitors, Shae-Lynn Bourne and Victor Kraatz, finished first in their half. ...
A report about the formation of a new World Skating Federation that wants to be recognized as the sport's governing body circulated yesterday. That was not well-received by the existing federation.
"The U.S. Figure Skating Association has had neither the time, nor the opportunity, to review the proposals being offered by those seeking to create a new world figure skating body," said a statement released by the USFSA's executive committee. "As such, it would be inaccurate and untrue for anyone to suggest that the USFSA leadership has endorsed the proposed new entity. ... We believe it is important to refocus our attention on the ice, where it should be."