With a chance to win his first senior Grand Prix figure skating title, the 19-year-old Russian isn't going to hold back in Saturday's free skate, either.
"I have a very tough program technically," he said. "I'm planning to show the maximum. I've worked really hard and I want to show it."
Kovtun scored 85.96 points to take a three-point lead over Olympic and world champion Yuzuru Hanyu, who had a mistake-filled performance in his first competition of the season. Defending champion Yan Han of China also struggled with his landings, finishing third.
Nam Nguyen, a 16-year-old from Toronto, was sixth. The reigning world junior champion won bronze two weeks ago in his senior Grand Prix debut at Skate America.
"Overall it was a good skate," Nguyen said. "I felt comfortable out there today having now gone through the process at a senior Grand Prix. You definitely have to earn your levels here and I feel I can do even better in the long (program)."
In the women's competition, Russians Julia Lipnitskaia and Elizaveta Tuktamysheva finished first and second, respectively, well ahead of the field. Japan's Kanako Murakami was third. Gabrielle Daleman of Newmarket, Ont., was fourth.
Kovtun, who had two second-place Grand Prix finishes in his first year of senior competition in 2013, had difficulty landing his quad Salchow and toe loop in practice this week, but executed them perfectly in the short program. It was the opposite story, though, with his triple Axel, which he doubled in his routine.
"The triple Axel was working very well in practice and I was not nervous about it at all," he said. "And then I didn't do it in the program."
It didn't matter because Hanyu and Yan made even more errors.
Hanyu tripled his quad toe loop and didn't perform the second jump in his triple-triple combination. The 19-year-old Japanese star hadn't competed since the worlds in March — and it showed.
"I had some (difficult) elements, but I didn't perform very well today," he said. "I didn't skate well but I was very satisfied with the score."
Hanyu had initially planned to return to competition at the Finlandia Trophy in Espoo, Finland, last month, but decided to skip it as a precaution after injuring his back.
The pig-tailed Lipnitskaia said she was nervous in her first event since winning gold in the team event at the Sochi Olympics in February and silver in the singles at the worlds, but she hit all of her landings in an elegant and flawless program.
"I didn't compete for a long time after the Olympic season," the 16-year-old Russian said. "In training, I also was very nervous. I felt like it was my first competition in my life."
Tuktamysheva, on the other hand, is competing in her sixth event of the season. The 17-year-old has three wins and a second at Skate America two weeks ago.
"I don't even know if I had a rest or not because after Skate America, I really had problems with the jet lag," she said. "It's only been the last two practices I felt like I was ready for this (competition)."
In the ice dancing, American siblings Alex and Maia Shibutani topped world champions Luca Lanotte and Anna Cappellini of Italy by nearly three points.
The Shibutanis have only won one Grand Prix, the 2011 NHK Trophy, but they are coming off a second-place finish at Skate America.
"We only had a week since our last Grand Prix at Skate America but we feel like we made great improvements on our performance and the program," Maia Shibutani said. "So this is just a great step for us for the season."
Lanotte and Cappellini were a tad out of sync in their season debuts.
"Something didn't go quite as planned, but we'll look into that and try to come back stronger tomorrow," Cappellini said.
Alexandra Paul of Toronto and Mitchell Islam of Barrie, Ont., were fifth.
China took the top three spots in the pairs short program, led by Peng Cheng and Zhang Hao, the bronze medallists at Skate America.
Natasha Purich of Saint-Leonard, Que., and Andrew Wolfe of Montreal were fifth.
The competition was hit by the withdrawal of Olympic champions Tatiana Volosozhar and Maxim Trankov, who are skipping this year's Grand Prix events due to Trankov's shoulder injury.
The Cup of China is the third stop on the six-event Grand Prix circuit this season. The competition ends with the Grand Prix Finals in December in Barcelona, Spain.