Reporting from Vancouver, Canada — When he finished his short program Tuesday night, Russia's Evgeny Plushenko twice mimed brandishing a sword and putting it back in the sheath, as if he were a swashbuckler who had carved up the opposition.
And the reigning Olympic champion, first of the contenders to skate, put up a score that would be hard for anyone to top.
But reigning world champion Evan Lysacek almost did, with a performance so exhilarating Lysacek punctuated the final pieces of his choreography with expressions of exultation.
Hitting a quad-triple jump combination and executing everything else with surpassing ease, Plushenko racked up 90.85 points, second only to his world-record 91.30 at last month's European championships.
Lysacek had 90.30, barely ahead of Japan's Daisuke Takahashi (90.25), who had battled back from knee surgery that sidelined him last year.
Lysacek skated with command and passion, leaving him overwhelmed with joy at the end of a program in which his jumps were huge and solid, his spins dynamic, his footwork captivating the crowd.
Some of Lysacek's reaction owed to having created a special moment for his family and his 71-year-old coach, Frank Carroll. Some came from erasing a bad memory, a botched short program at the 2006 Olympics that ultimately cost him a medal. And some came from the burden of expectations.
"Honestly, I did have some extra pressure coming in as the reigning world champion, and I felt it today," Lysacek said. "I also had a little monkey on my back from Torino four years ago.
"That short program night was one on my worst. To now have one of my best feels pretty good. I guess that is where that [emotional] release came from."
Both Lysacek and Takahashi pressured Plushenko without a quad, adding more fuel to the argument over the value of the hardest jump skaters do, a debate that will rage leading up to Thursday night's final.
"Of course, the main thing for me was to do the quadruple," Plushenko said.
His coach, Alexei Mishin, once again derided the skaters -- like Lysacek and Patrick Chan of Canada, 1-2 at the last world championships -- who insist the quad can be superfluous.
"Some skaters and coaches are explaining this is a new era, you don't need quad, you need clean skating with triple jumps," Mishin said, "I think this is wrong. Those who are not able to jump, don't make fake explanations."
Lysacek and Takahashi both made up what they lost on the technical side of the scoring with better component -- or presentation -- marks than Plushenko. Three mistakes left Chan seventh with 81.12.
"I guess I can speak for both sides and say for me it's just as difficult to have the intricate program I have and execute everything in there as it would for me to execute a quad," said Lysacek, whose four triple jumps all received strong marks.
Three-time U.S. champion Johnny Weir, another without a quad, delivered what may have been his most energetic performance since finishing fifth at the last Olympics, but a wrong edge takeoff on his triple flip jump left him sixth at 82.10.
"When I came in, I knew a medal was pretty farfetched for me. I have no problem with that," Weir said. "I've accepted that.
"I actually had fun tonight, and that's something I haven't been able to say for a long time."
U.S. champion Jeremy Abbott couldn't say the same after falling apart for the third straight time in a major championship. He was 15th with 69.40 points.
Plushenko, who still skates with the arrogant demeanor of a champion despite taking three years off after the 2006 Olympics, seemed to be making a mockery of the controversy over his lack of transitions and linking footwork when he did an Elvis-like hip swivel after landing his last jump.
"I don't care today about the transitions or the scoring system," Plushenko said. "I care [that] I did a clean program."
But all the uproar since he won the European title may have had an impact.
His component score in that transition/footwork category was just 6.8, a point under any of his other four component scores Tuesday and .7 lower than the score at Europeans.
"This is the result of the information war against him," Mishin said of the relatively low transition score.
"To do a good quad, you have to lose transitions," Mishin said.
Asked if he wanted to make history by becoming the first since Dick Button to win back-to-back golds, Plushenko said, "I am already in history."