Joannie Rochette is taking a lot of the drama out of what is supposed to be a back-and-forth battle for the senior women's crown at the Canadian figure skating championships.
The title-starved 19-year-old from Ile-Dupas, Que., outskated defending champ Cynthia Phaneuf in last night's short program before a crowd of 4,472 and is poised to capture her first national senior title in tonight's free skate at the John Labatt Centre.
Rochette heads into tonight's finale -- a firebird-themed program she performed dazzlingly well in qualifying on Monday -- with a nearly 10-point lead over Phaneuf, which is considered by many experts to be a comfortable but not insurmountable cushion.
Rochette has 88.16 points while Phaneuf is second at 78.18.
"It was the best I've skated under that much pressure. I was very relieved," the leader said. "I didn't skate the short well last year and I really wanted to do this."
Rochette was so worked up by the success of her short program and her crisp jumping, that she almost crashed into the end boards during her footwork segment.
"I heard the crowd laugh and it made me laugh, too," a relaxed-looking Rochette said. "I didn't start well and I tried to cut short some moves and it ended up bad at the end."
Still, it was clearly not bad enough to stop talk of her coronation. Rochette was the national novice champ in 2000 and the junior champ in 2001 and needs the senior title for an impressive triple crown.
She feels she has everything she needs to take her skating to the next level.
"I don't think you can be national champion without a triple Lutz and until last year I didn't have one," Rochette said.
Now, she does and appears to be almost unstoppable this week.
Phaneuf, meanwhile, struggled on her opening triple Lutz-double toe combo and will need to skate a flawless long program to zoom past Rochette.
"I made little mistakes and she skated cleanly," the 17-year-old said. "It was better (than qualifying). I had a very good practice. I was feeling good."
Phaneuf wasn't helped by a delay in tabulating previous skater Mira Leung's scores, which left the reigning champ with a lengthy wait time on the ice. That's never a good situation for the nerves.
"It was like more stress, more stress, more stress."
"She tried to move around but she came over once and said, 'OK, I'm ready to go now,' " her coach Annie Barabe added. "I thought she skated very well but it was not the best.
"She has a lot of pressure as defending champion and the goal is not just to win. It's to (finish in the top two) and make the worlds team."
Phaneuf might have to settle for skating for that second spot. This is looking more and more like Rochette's show.
"It was a very intense skate. Joannie has wanted this for a very long time," said Sebastien Britten, one of Rochette's coaches. "It's like horses. You just let them loose. At this point, she can do it herself. We're just along to assist.
"But there's still the long (program). At this level, it's never over until the final note."
Londoner Lauren Wilson, the 2002 Canadian junior champion, was 13th after the short program and qualified for tonight's free skate.
Only the top 18 of 24 advanced last night.