Plushenko back, faces Chan, Hanyu in short program

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SOCHI, Russia (AP) - For Patrick Chan, the main meal is at hand.

For Evgeni Plushenko, it’s all gravy now.

Three-time world champion Chan came into the Sochi Olympics as the favorite for the gold medal, which would be Canada’s first in men’s competition. But he’s looked fragile both in training sessions and during the team event, opening the door wide for several other skaters.

Notably Yuzuru Hanyu of Japan, who could become the first Asian man to win Olympic gold.

And just as notably Plushenko, who already has a team gold, giving him medals in four games, a first in the modern era for figure skaters. He’s so relaxed that he even laughed after two falls during Wednesday’s practice, and joked about the flops with his coach, Alexei Mishin.

“Competing in your country is difficult,” Mishin said. “It’s a lot of responsibility and he feels it. You can see it in his behavior. But he’s also very proud to skate here.”

With nothing to prove and little pressure - the guy already is as big a hero in Russian sports as Vladislav Tretiak - Plushenko just might pull off one more stunner.

“He is ready,” Mishin said.

He is also 31 and certainly weary from skating both programs in the team event. Chan did only the short program, in which he was third behind Hanyu and Plushenko. Hanyu also skipped the team free skate, and several other contenders - Japan’s Daisuke Takahashi, the 2010 bronze medalist, Spain’s Javier Fernandez and Kazakhstan’s Denis Ten - were not part of the team competition at all.

Hanyu deserves top billing along with Chan after taking the Grand Prix Final this season, then outskating him in the team short. Fernandez, like Hanyu coached by two-time Olympic silver medalist Brian Orser, also is a legitimate challenger.

“They’ve been closing the gap every season,” Orser said. “They are getting closer and closer.

“A few years ago, Patrick was up here,” he added, putting his hand at eye level, “but the gap has narrowed bit by bit.”

Orser is certain Hanyu will have no trouble with Olympic pressure. The Canadian coach, who guided South Korea’s Yuna Kim to the women’s gold four years ago, went to the Japanese national championships and saw how the 19-year-old Hanyu never was flustered by all the attention.

“I said to him right after nationals, ‘If you can handle this intense pressure, the Olympics will be the same,’ ” Orser recalled.

One other skater who has looked sharp in practices is France’s Brian Joubert, like Plushenko skating in his fourth games. He was especially spot-on in Wednesday’s final full run-throughs.

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