Yuzuru Hanyu delights home fans with stellar short program
A standing ovation and a flood of Pooh bears on the ice can only mean one thing - Yuzuru Hanyu is on form.
The double Olympic champion delivered yet again in the NHK Trophy in Sapporo, posting the third-best short program score in figure skating history with 109.34 on Friday.
His superb skate leaves him 18 points clear of France's Kevin Aymoz, with Russian veteran Sergei Voronov in third ahead of the free skate on Saturday.
But the home favourite told ISU.org that there is definitely room for improvement.
"For today, I would give myself a pass grade. It wasn't my best performance, but at least I can use today's performance as a baseline to continue training hard and to make sure that I can put out an even better short program in the next competition.
"I was really trying to feel the music. No matter how nervous I am, I can always tell myself that the music itself will never change. I tried very hard to put my emotions into the music and have a very positive image about my skating.
"Tomorrow I have a different program so I want to have a different level of concentration, and more than anything else it is important to me to stay on top form and skate strongly until the very end."
It was a disappointing day for Jason Brown whose hopes of reaching next month's Grand Prix Final in Turin were dealt a major blow as two falls left him down in eighth place.
A class apart
After Alena Kostornaia's world record set the women's short program alight earlier on Friday, the men's equivalent took a little while to get going.
But last year's NHK Trophy runner-up Sergei Voronov had the crowd on its feet after his joyous routine to Queen's 'Somebody To Love'.
It was technically sound too, with a quad toe loop-triple toe loop combination getting things underway followed by a triple Lutz and a triple Axel, resulting in a season's best score of 88.63 for the 32-year-old Russian.
Kevin Aymoz was next with a wonderfully choreographed skate to Prince's 'The Question Of U'.
The Frenchman just about held on to his opening quad toe loop, and his jumping improved after that as he scored 91.47 to go into the lead.
He said afterwards to ISU.org, "I'm really glad to be in Japan for this competition and tonight I had a lot of fun skating my short program, even with the mistakes. It was really cool to skate. For tomorrow I just want to do my best and do a clean program."
Next up was Skate America runner-up Jason Brown.
Needing a podium finish to guarantee himself a place in the Grand Prix Final, the American fell twice in his short program on a triple Axel and a triple Lutz.
The Sochi 2014 Olympian received a warm ovation from the crowd despite his jumping errors, but his score of 73.73 leaves him down in eighth place and with a mountain to climb in Saturday's free skate.
Then came the main attraction - the gold medallist from Sochi 2014 and PyeongChang 2018
Four weeks after his convincing victory at Skate Canada, Hanyu looked sharp in the warm-up and carried that over to the competition.
The 24-year-old's previous issues with the quad Salchow look to be firmly in the past as he landed the jump superbly at the start of his routine before nailing a triple Axel.
His quad toe loop-triple toe loop was not quite as spectacular as his previous jumps, but it was more than adequate with the crowd entranced by his skate to 'Otonal'.
And the Pooh bears thrown by fans came flooding onto the ice after another fine performance by one of Japan's sporting heroes.
Hanyu has confessed to being worried about injuring himself in his second Grand Prix assignment having done so in training for the 2017 NHK Trophy and at the 2018 Rostelecom Cup.
His big lead means he does not need to push himself unduly before two weeks of rest ahead of the Grand Prix Final, and a mouthwatering clash with reigning world champion Chen.