Meryl Davis and Charlie White sure know how to spoil a homecoming.
Undaunted at skating minutes away from where longtime rivals Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir grew up, the Americans won the short dance with perhaps their best performance of the season on Thursday.
Their score of 77.12 — the highest anyone's gotten this season — would have been tough to beat, anyway, but the Canadians didn't help themselves by getting noticeably out of unison midway through.
Davis and White lead the Olympic and world champions by 3.25 points, a significant gap going into Saturday's free dance.
"It's a really good sign when, from beginning to end, you're having a good time," White said. "It was one of those dream skates."
And a bit of a nightmare for the Canadians, whose family and friends were visible all over the arena in their bright yellow T-shirts.
"We find ourselves in a bit of a hole," Moir said. "But the competition isn't over yet."
Ekaterina Bobrova and Dmitri Soloviev are third.
Earlier Thursday, Olympic champion Kim Yu-na made a triumphant return, winning the short program in her first appearance at a major competition since the 2011 worlds.
Good friends and training partners as well as rivals, the Americans and Canadians have been trading titles since Vancouver. Virtue-Moir claimed the Olympic gold along with the world titles in 2010 and 2012. Davis and White won the 2011 world title — the first for a U.S. dance team — and have had a stranglehold on the Grand Prix Final title.
But the Americans have moved past the Canadians this year, and anyone watching Thursday night could see it.
The short dance is a combination of the old compulsories and original dance. Couples have to do a prescribed pattern (this year's is the Yankee polka) during the 2:50 program, and also perform their own interpretation of a specific rhythm (anything in the polka family).
It might sound easy to blend the two, but there are mash-ups of rap and opera that are more harmonious than some of the tone-deaf routines Thursday night. (Think "Sound of Music" meets hootenanny, and you get the idea.)
There was none of that awkwardness from Davis and White — in their music or anywhere else. Every element of their program was polished and crisp, and the overall result was pure delight.
"We always have fun together," Davis said. "When that comes across to the audience, it's really rewarding."
Davis and White sprinkled special little touches throughout the program like hidden gems; the little hops they did at the beginning of the polka were pure fun. But it was their unison that made the performance something special. They were as synchronized as a Swiss watch, every moment done in perfect harmony.
Their twizzles — traveling spins — were so spot on, dance coaches all over will want a DVD just of that section. When they did their no-touch circular step sequence, it was like watching a shadow.
"We feel different than we felt two years ago. In a good way," White said. "Our confidence is as high as it's ever been."
As excited as Virtue and Moir were to skate in their hometown — Moir said they were "the luckiest kids in the world" — the adoration can be suffocating, and they definitely seemed to lack luster Thursday night. Instead of being bouncy and fun, their program seemed heavy and dark.
And they made the judges' decision easy when Virtue lurched to the side while they were doing their require twizzles. It took them out of unison, and they were nearly a half-turn apart at one point.
"It wasn't just the twizzle," Moir said, noting that they got a level three, one lower than the maximum, for their no-touch sequence.
Davis and White, meanwhile, had level fours on everything.
"It wasn't only our season's best in terms of result, but it was our season's best skate," Davis said. "To do that at the world championships is really exciting. Charlie and I both got off the ice, and the first thing we said was that it was a lot of fun to perform. The program went smoothly and we enjoyed every minute of it."
Despite Kim's long layoff, there were no signs of nerves and certainly no signs of rust in her first major competition since the 2011 worlds.
Just the hint of more gold in her future.
"Because I've skated for so long in the past, the skating itself is not that much different," she said through a translator. "However, how I think of skating in general, how I feel before a competition and how I worry about a competition is definitely different because I don't feel the pressure as much. After winning the Olympics, I felt I had accomplished it all. I had accomplished my dream."
"Now I don't focus on the results only. I really do enjoy skating itself," she added. "However, I'm a human being and I do want to still try my best. I can't help myself exceeding my own goals and getting good results."
With a score of 69.97, she's more than three points ahead of defending world champion Carolina Kostner (66.86) and Kanako Murakami of Japan (66.64) going into Saturday's free skate.
Comebacks in figure skating are notoriously harsh, and not even an Olympic gold medal can protect against gravity, injuries and the pace of progress. For every Evgeni Plushenko or Gordeeva and Grinkov, there are dozens more failures.
"It's really hard to prepare your physical and mental status," Kim acknowledged. "It wasn't an easy to decision to make, but I made it and now I'm just focused to be back."
Actually, it was like old times.
What makes Kim so special is how smooth and effortless she makes everything look. Triple-triple jump combinations take so much strength and effort that you know when most women are going to do them because the lead-in is so lengthy.
For Kim, her triple lutz-triple toe combo was simply another element, done as easily as another step or turn. She had an edge call on her triple flip, a minor flaw, but the jump itself was gorgeous as she floated in the air for the briefest of moments before starting to turn.
Even her landings were gorgeous. Rather than scratching the ice, she glided along like a pebble skipped across the water.
But just as it was in the old days, it was Kim's presentation that was particularly exquisite. She doesn't simply feel music, it's part of her soul. She acknowledged each nuance of music with every inch of her body: a soft tilt of her head, a brush of her fingertips and, of course, that penetrating gaze.
"Everything. Does that sound too broad?" Gracie Gold said when asked what she admired most about her idol's skating.
"Her smoothness. ... That confidence. It just looks like she trusts herself so much, which is a lot (easier) said than done."
Her only "flaw" was with her spins. The first two got level threes, one below the maximum. Most skaters would have taken that gladly — she got positive grades of execution on both — but for Kim, perfection was, and still is, the norm.
"Other than that first spin, I felt great," Kim said. "Because I gave my best, I would give myself the full 100 percent."
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