A fight to the finish

ROB BRODIE -- Ottawa Sun

, Last Updated: 11:55 AM ET

Anyone else, you'd be saying game, set and match. But Jeffrey Buttle knows all too well who is still lurking right behind him. The one guy in the senior men's field at these Canadian figure skating championships for whom this kind of climb never seems too steep.

''It is Emanuel Sandhu we're talking about,'' said CTV analyst Tracy Wilson, with a nod toward the three-time champion's immense talent and mercurial past.

And so it is that Buttle, the reigning Canadian skate king, knows the job isn't completely finished. That he needs one more relatively clean skate -- maybe even a quad -- to lock up national title No. 2 tonight at the Civic Centre.

''It's a good lead but with the new system, it's not a substantial lead,'' Buttle said last night about the 7.59-point edge he holds over Sandhu, the only real threat to his reign. ''One missed jump, one element, can change everything. I just want to make sure I don't allow points to be made up on me.''

He should know. Last October at Skate Canada in St. John's, Buttle held a 12.38-point lead over Sandhu after the short program. But Sandhu roared back in the free to win by less than a point.

That being said, Buttle is looking good for a repeat. He widened the gap in the short program, posting a 77.01-point score for an effort that was tidy for the most part. There was a startling bobble on a sit spin, and a couple of his jumps weren't precise in their form. But he stood up on everything -- triple flip combo, triple Axel and triple lutz -- and that made the difference.

Most importantly, he skated with the air of a champion, almost floating through his exquisite Sing, Sing, Sing program from start to finish.

''Comfort-wise, it was one of my best,'' said Buttle, 23, of Smooth Rock Falls. ''I want to recreate that feeling (tonight) and take that to the Olympics.''

Sandhu is certain to join him at the Turin Games. The Richmond Hill native played it safe in his short program, electing not to try a quadruple jump and replacing it with a triple flip-triple toe combination. But he flubbed the landing of his triple lutz, leaving him second in the short with 72.80 points.

''At my other competitions, I've faced a lot of other skaters doing quads. Nobody here is even trying them,'' the 25-year-old Sandhu said in explaining the strategy. ''I wanted to play it a little bit safer and keep myself in it. If I had done a better lutz, there's no question that I would have (won the short).''

The decision surprised Buttle, though he's lived by the same logic himself. ''If you're landing it all the time, I say why not?'' he said. ''If you don't feel you can land it when it counts, it's not worth risking.''

Both promise to break out the quads tonight. It might yet be the difference maker.

Though he two-footed his triple Axel, Shawn Sawyer of Edmundston, N.B., took a major step toward Turin yesterday. With 100.37 points, he's a solid third, and the guy right behind him -- 15-year-old wunderkind Patrick Chan -- isn't age-eligible for the Olympics.

''I was hoping to do a good short, stay in that final flight and hopefully grab a good mark for the long program,'' said Sawyer, 20, who scored a personal-best 69.90 for the short.

CHAN SHOWS POISE

The Ottawa-born Chan continues to astonish everyone with his poise. He doesn't yet have a triple Axel, but landed everything else yesterday and is a step away from his top-five goal, which would put him on the national team for next season. The world junior championships seem a certainty for him.

He shook his head at the suggestion he might be ready to scare the big boys already.

''Oh, no, far from it. It's just my first year (as a senior),'' he said.

Meanwhile, two skaters considered prime contenders for the third Olympic berth -- veteran Ben Ferreira of Edmonton and rising talent Chris Mabee of Tillsonburg -- tumbled down the leaderboard with costly falls. Ferreira is now seventh (91.66), while Mabee skidded to eighth (90.47).

But is the race for the Olympics over? Not a chance. Not with this system, volatile as it can be.

''I've seen some wild things with this system,'' said Ferreira, 25. ''You really don't know. It's what's out there (on the ice) that counts.''

rob.brodie@ott.sunpub.com


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