Plushenko extends Russia's lead in team event

BARRY WILNER AP Sports Writer Published:

SOCHI, Russia (AP) -- Evgeni Plushenko answered all the questions Sunday night, pushing Russia closer to its first gold medal of the Sochi Olympics.

The doubters who wondered if the 31-year-old Plushenko could last through a 4½-minute long program -- or if he even had one ready -- were silenced when he won the men's free skate portion of the new team event. It wasn't nearly as magical as his performance in the short program on Thursday, but his countrymen were just as engrossed.

As Plushenko moved closer to becoming the first modern-era figure skater to win medals in four Olympics, he gave Russia a 57-50 lead over Canada with the women's free skate and the free dance remaining. It was an almost insurmountable lead.

Skating to "Best of Plushenko," there were mistakes in his jumps and not much in between them, other than the required footwork. No, not his best, but he scored 168.20 points.

That was good enough with three-time world champion Patrick Chan of Canada and short program winner Yuzuru Hanyu of Japan resting for the individual men's event. They were replaced by the lower-ranked Kevin Reynolds and Tatsuki Machida, respectively, and they finished second and third.

Jason Brown of Highland Park, Ill., was fourth.

The United States had 41 points, Japan 38 and Italy 37.

Plushenko won silver at the 2002 Games, gold in 2006 and silver in 2010. He's barely competed since the Vancouver Olympics, and says he's had 12 surgeries during his lengthy career.

He even needed to convince the Russian federation he was the right choice for the team after finishing second at the national championships. He did so, and it looks like the right decision.

With dozens of Russian flags waving throughout the Iceberg arena, Plushenko pumped his fist and threw kisses to the crowd when he was finished. His teammates hugged him when he left the ice, and his countrymen roared with delight when the scores showed him on top.