Canadian pair lead after World Championships short programme

Deanna Stellato-Dudek and Maxime Deschamps of <a class="link " href="" data-i13n="sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link" data-ylk="slk:Canada;sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link;itc:0">Canada</a> celebrate after topping the short programme in the pairs competition at the Figure Skating World Championships in Montreal (Geoff Robins)

Canadians Deanna Stellato-Dudek and Maxime Deschamps electrified home fans as they seized the lead in the pairs short programme at the Figure Skating World Championships on Wednesday.

Montreal-based Stellato-Dudek and Deschamps earned a personal best 77.48 points for their short programme for a commanding lead of 3.95 points over defending champions Riku Miura and Ryuichi Kihara of Japan.

Their performance to Cirque du Soleil's "Oxygene" sparked a riotous ovation from fans at the Bell Centre and the score brought a scream of delight from Stellato-Dudek, who is on the brink of a first world title at the age of 40.

The 2000 world junior silver medallist skating for the United States, she retired in 2001 because of injuries but came back in pairs in 2016 and began skating for Canada in 2021.

Deschamps said it was "very special" to skate at a World Championships on home ice, and Stellato-Dudek said containing their emotions would be key in the free skate.

"I need to stay calm," she said. "I tend to over-try, and that never works."

She and Deschamps won Skate Canada gold with this season's best pairs total of 214.64 and triumphed again at the Four Continents championship in Shanghai this month, where they finished ahead of Miura and Kihara.

The Japanese duo have come back strong after missing much of the season because of injury. Their solid short programme, marred by a flawed landing on a throw triple-lutz, garnered 73.53 points.

"We did the best we can at the moment," Kihara said.

Italians Sara Conti and Niccolo Macii were third on 72.88 going into Thursday's free skate, when the battle for podium places promised to be close.

Germany's Minerva Fabienne Hase and Nikita Volodin in fourth and Georgia's Anastasiia Metelkina and Luka Berulava in fifth were less than a point behind Conti and Macii.

Later Wednesday, Kaori Sakamoto's bid for a third straight women's title got off to an unsteady start in the short programme. The Japanese star slipped near the end of her routine and finished the day in fourth with 73.29 points.

Sakamoto is vying to complete an unbeaten 2023-24 campaign if she can become the first skater since American Peggy Flemming from 1966-1968 to win three straight world titles.

However the 23-year-old from Kobe was upstaged by Belgium's charismatic European champion Loena Hendrickx, who produced a dazzling performance to lead after the short programme with 76.98 points.

Hendrickx, bidding to land a gold after finishing with a silver and a bronze at the last two world championships, leads American teenager Isabeau Levito by 3.25 points.

The 17-year-old Levito, the 2023 US champion, scored a personal best of 74.73 after a routine that saw her nail a triple Lutz-triple toe, a double Axel and a triple flip.

South Korea's Lee Hae-In is in third place after scoring 73.55.