As the Grand Prix season progressed, Evan Bates said he and partner Madison Chock felt they simply were trying to survive. They had swapped out their short dance for a new one early last fall, and with each competition, they continued to make adjustments to their free dance, as well.

The constant changes left the ice dancers so exhausted that they took a few weeks off after the Grand Prix Final in December. Rejuvenated by the break, the defending U.S. champions showed Friday that one thing remains the same: their position as the couple to beat. Chock and Bates finished first in the short dance at Xcel Energy Center, earning 75.14 points to hold off second-place Maia and Alex Shibutani.

The Shibutani siblings scored 74.67, with third-place Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue earning 71.10. The rest of the field trails Hubbell and Donohue by 7.88 points or more entering the free dance Saturday afternoon.

“This has been the most challenging season for us,” said Bates, who with Chock won the silver medal at last year’s world championships. “We had never been in that situation before, with so much change.

“Coming in this week, we were relieved we’d had the programs set in place for more than a few weeks. We’re thrilled with the way it went. I think we turned a new page after the Grand Prix Final.”

Chock said they felt connected to each other and to the music Friday. That was evident in their elegant performance, set to Andrea Bocelli’s “More” and Il Divo’s version of “Unchained Melody.”

The Shibutanis performed a playful, exuberant dance to music from the ballet “Coppelia,” with Maia imitating the doll at the heart of the story. Alex said the tale reflects their fun-loving personalities, and they agreed Friday’s performance was their season’s best. Afterward, though, they already looked forward to the free dance.

The Shibutanis’ program to the Coldplay song “Fix You” was a huge crowd-pleaser on the Grand Prix circuit, and Alex said they have polished it further since then.

“Every time we’ve gone out and performed the free dance, it’s been very special for us and for the audience,” said Alex, who with Maia has won three silver medals and two bronze at the nationals. “The program has been special from the beginning, but I think we’ve really taken it to another level in our training since [the Grand Prix Final].”

Chock and Bates won their first U.S. title last year and have maintained the Americans’ reputation on the world stage. The superstar couples who came before — Olympic and world champions Meryl Davis and Charlie White, and Olympic and world medalists Tanith Belbin and Ben Agosto — held the U.S. crown for 11 consecutive years between them.

Joining them as multiple winners won’t be driving the pair Saturday. “It’s obviously quite a legacy,” Chock said. “We hope to follow in their footsteps. But our main goal is to show how much we’ve grown through the season.”