Saturday, April 28, 2012

2012 Stanley Cup Playoffs: Round 2 Predictions

The pattern from the past six years continued - four upsets one year, two the next, and then repeating the cycle - with four upsets again in the first round. And, as happened in 2006 and 2010, each team advancing to the second round has a different seed. And really, it should not be that surprising: in the past seven years, there has only been one year in which at least one 5-seed has not advanced (2009) and only one year in which at least one 6-seed has not advanced (2011). Including this year, four 8-seeds have advanced - close to one-third of all 1-8 series - with two of those also winning in the second round. Only three of last year's first-round winners repeated that feat this year, and none of last year's Conference Finalists got past the first round. This year's first round featured a lot of penalties, suspensions, and overtimes, proving that the field is tighter than ever. I'm going to use that explanation to cover over my botching of my Round 1 predictions. Here are my commentaries on each series.

(1) New York vs. (8) Ottawa - Right team, wrong number of games. The Senators pushed the Rangers to the limit, and they almost helped complete the unthinkable: both #1 seeds being upset in the first round. It took the Rangers one game longer than I thought it would, but it made them look vulnerable.

(2) Boston vs. (7) Washington - Wrong team, right number of games. The law of averages finally caught up with the Bruins after three Game 7 wins last year. This was the first playoff series in which all 7 games were decided by one goal, so Boston has nothing to be ashamed about. Except losing.

(3) Florida vs. (6) New Jersey - Right team, wrong number of games. I underestimated the Panthers; it turns out they had more life than many had expected. It took until OT in Game 7 to decide, but the Devils did take the series as I predicted. It'll be interesting to see what happens in Round 2, though.

(4) Pittsburgh vs. (5) Philadelphia - Wrong team, wrong number of games. In almost any alternative seeding arrangement, these two would have been facing off in the Conference Final. This was the most entertaining and the most controversial series in the first round, and judging by the Flyers' dominance in Game 6, they're glad it ended when it did.

Western Conference:
(1) Vancouver vs. (8) Los Angeles - Wrong team, wrong number of games. This series was proof that you need to trust your gut when picking. Everything in me said that the Kings would upset, but I still couldn't rationalize picking against the Canucks. Well, there's always next year.

(2) St. Louis vs. (7) San Jose - Wrong team, wrong number of games. The Sharks do not need to be seeded highly to crumple in the playoffs. I know the Blues are a talented, hard-playing team, but the Sharks have every reason to be ashamed after getting swept after their initial Game 1 OT win.

(3) Phoenix vs. (6) Chicago - Wrong team, right number of games. This was the first series in sixty years in which each of the first five games went to OT. Chicago just could not get past Mike Smith's goaltending, and they missed a couple of lucky bounces. C'est la vie.

(4) Nashville vs. (5) Detroit - Right team, right number of games. The only series I got completely right! Both teams played as expected, and Nashville is looking even more nasty now.

So, in all, not a great record: 3-5, with only one of those being a wrong Game 7 pick. I picked two upsets that didn't happen and missed three that did, even though my gut was urging me otherwise in two of those situations. Let's see if I've learned any lessons for Round 2.

Eastern Conference:
(1) New York vs. (7) Washington - In some ways, this is both the best and the worst possible match-up for both teams. New York barely survived Ottawa, but Washington has a rookie goalie and a lot of holes. On the other hand, they also have that chip on their shoulder and no expectations this year, so they could do what Tampa did to them last year and dominate a second-round series. Washington could also face a Rangers team that has something to prove now, and they are up against the best goalie in the NHL. I think that momentum could go either way, but goalies can win a series; Lundqvist can, and I think Holtby may have already had his victory. Rangers in 6.

(5) Philadelphia vs. (6) New Jersey - The Devils are a flawed team in many ways, but the Flyers have one possible catastrophe waiting to happen: Bryzgalov. The Flyers are a deeper team than the Devils, and Bryz should outplay Brodeur, though you never know when those old goalies have one last magical run in them. When I think about this series, though, it comes down to one factor: the Flyers look scary; the Devils don't. Flyers in 6.

My eventual pick for the Finals (New York) is still alive, so I don't need to revise my later round picks. I'll stick with New York going to the Finals over Philly.

Western Conference:
(2) Blues vs. (8) Kings - These two teams are very similar: young teams that didn't expect to be where they were going into the playoffs that both defeated established contenders (last year's Conference Finalists) in the first round with killer goaltending, strong defense, and a young forward corps. There's really no reason to pick one team or the other here, since any argument for one team can be made for the other. So the argument I'm sticking with is two-fold: two of the three times an 8th-seeded team has advanced in the past six years, they've also won their second-round match-up; the Kings also have had two years of first-round exits to increase their desire to win, whereas the Blues barely expected to make the playoffs. I'm going to take the Kings in 6.

(3) Phoenix vs. (4) Nashville - This is Nashville's year to break through. I think Smith will steal a game or two for the Coyotes, but I see Nashville winning this series in 7 games. Maybe Phoenix can pull a reverse-Nordiques and win the Cup next year in Quebec, though.

My Finals pick (Nashville) is still alive, so I'll stick with them over the Kings in the Conference Finals.

There you have it: my second round picks.

Monday, April 16, 2012

First Quarter 2012 in Gaming

One of my resolutions at the end of the last calendar year was to play more games, and I certainly have followed through on that pledge so far. I have played more board games, and followed them more avidly, than I ever have before. Although I didn't play many different video games, the ones I did play (or re-play) took a lot of my attention. Here are some of my reflections on the first quarter of 2012 in gaming.

Board games I've added to my collection in the past few months: Colossal Arena; Condottiere; Glory To Rome; Parade; Power Grid (with 2 expansions); Race for the Galaxy; Ticket To Ride Europe; Tikal; Torres (I found a great deal on a used site online)

Games I've tried for the first time in the past few months: 7 Wonders; Ascension; Bean Trader; Colossal Arena; Condottiere; Glory To Rome; Kingdom Builder; Lord of the Rings (Knizia co-operative); Pandemic; Parade; Race for the Galaxy; The Resistance; RoboRally; Torres (14 in total!)

Top 5 favourite games in the past few months: 7 Wonders; Innovation; Glory to Rome; Race for the Galaxy; Tikal

Top 10 board games I'd like to try: Core Worlds, Eminent Domain, Fresco, Galaxy Trucker, Jaipur, Jump Gate, Lost Cities, Stone Age, Tigris & Euphrates, Zooloretto (I tried three from my last list, and three others have been bumped.)

Video games I've played most in the past few months: Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword (Wii, finished); Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess (GC re-play, finished); Fluidity (WiiWare, almost finished)

Top 5 video games to finish: Portal (PC); Metroid Prime 3 (Wii); DKC Returns (Wii); Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass (DS); Star Tropics 2 (VC)

Top 10 games to play (or re-play) next: Portal 2 (PC); You, Me, and the Cubes (WiiWare); Mega Man 9 and 10 (WiiWare); Limbo (PC); Legend of Zelda: Spirit Tracks (DS); Kid Icarus (NES); Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask (N64); Lego Batman (Wii); Banjo-Kazooie (N64)

Sunday, April 15, 2012

2012 Stanley Cup Playoffs: First Round Predictions

Ok, so I know this is late, and some series are almost half over (!), but I'm posting my first round picks anyway. You'll just have to trust me that these are the picks I had before the first round started. Believe me, I'd reverse some of them if I could. So here goes...

Eastern Conference:
(1) New York vs. (8) Ottawa - The Senators had a great run this year, and I think they'll have some life in this series, but the Rangers are too deep this year. Rangers in 6.

(2) Boston vs. (7) Washington - This might be one of the toughest series in the first round. The Caps might finally have a chance as the underdog, and the Bruins could be vulnerable. Then again, the Bruins have demonstrated all year that they are not going to be the kind of champion who gives in easily. I'll take the Bruins in 7 - they like doing things the hard way, after all.

(3) Florida vs. (6) New Jersey - I believe that Brodeur has one last epic run in him. Panthers fans have waited 12 years for the playoffs; I think they'll have to wait longer for winning a series. New Jersey in 5.

(4) Pittsburgh vs. (5) Philadelphia - The most brutal series of the first round, and likely the series that works against the Penguins going further in the playoffs. I think it's going seven games no matter what, and that it's probably a wash anyway, but I'm picking Pittsburgh in 7. [P.S. This can still technically happen, and I'm sticking to my original picks. But who saw a 3-0 lead by Flyers coming?]

If my picks go through, that would mean that New York would face New Jersey in Round 2, along with Boston and Pittsburgh. I'd take Boston and New York as the winners, with the Rangers narrowly advancing to the Finals from the East.

Western Conference:
(1) Vancouver vs. (8) Los Angeles - Vancouver is one of the weakest #1 seeds in years (since the Sharks were upset by Anaheim in 2009), and the Kings are the worst possible first-round match-up for them: a young, hungry team with something to prove after a lackluster season and a goalie who can get super streaky-hot for a series. Still, even though the Canucks are primed for an upset, I think they'll last the series. Vancouver in 7. [Note: Tonight's game is the true test of the Canucks.

(2) St. Louis vs. (7) San Jose - Most people would have predicted this match-up would have been the other way around, but St. Louis overachieved and San Jose struggled. Like Washington in the East, it seems possible that an underdog label might actually help the Sharks. Although the St. Louis goalies could rip off a few solid games in a row, I'm going to take the Sharks in 6 for this series.

(3) Phoenix vs. (6) Chicago - Chicago has the experience, a deeper roster, and a lasting bitterness from losing to the Canucks in the first round last year. Phoenix has a hot goalie, a dispassionate fan base, and has not won a playoff series in 25 years, dating back to their days in Winnipeg. I'm going to take Chicago in the "upset" in 6 games.

(4) Nashville vs. (5) Detroit - I almost feel bad for the Red Wings. Nashville has a huge chip on their shoulder after losing to the Canucks in the second round last year, and they are ready for action. Predators in 5.

If these picks pan out, it would mean that Vancouver would face San Jose in Round 2, along with Nashville and Chicago. I'd give those series to Vancouver and Nashville, with Nashville winning the match up with the Canucks.

So, in my scenario, which almost certainly will not happen, as it seems, New York and Nashville would face off in the Finals. I could argue myself into either team, but I think that we should see another parade in New York in June. Of course, I've been wrong before...

Friday, April 13, 2012

2012 Stanley Cup Playoffs: Observations on Seeding

It's that time again: time to make picks for the annual crapshoot known as the Stanley Cup playoffs. This year seems particularly unpredictable, but I'm going to try to pick the winners anyway. Before I get to my picks, I thought I would start off with some analysis of some of the trends in recent history. I've focused on the six years that have been played since the lockout, though I've done some research going back to 1994. Here are the lists of the seeds of teams that advanced to the second round, the Conference Finals, and then the result of the Finals for each of the past six years.

2006 - second round: 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8; Conference Finals: 2-4, 6-8; Finals: (2) Carolina over (8) Edmonton
2007 - second round: 1,1,2,2,3,4,5,6; Conference Finals: 1-4, 1-2; Finals:(2) Anaheim over (4) Ottawa
2008 - second round: 1,1,2,2,5,5,6,6; Conference Finals: 2-6, 1-5; Finals: (1) Detroit over (2) Pittsburgh
2009 - second round: 1,2,2,3,4,4,6,8; Conference Finals: 4-6, 2-4; Finals: (4) Pittsburgh over (2) Detroit
2010 - second round: 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8; Conference Finals: 7-8, 1-2; Finals:(2) Chicago over (7) Philadelphia
2011 - second round: 1,1,2,2,3,3,5,5; Conference Finals: 3-5, 1-2; Finals:(3) Boston over (1) Vancouver

Observations on the first and second round: It has been observed recently that the pattern in recent years is that there have been four upsets one year, two years the next year, and then the cycle has repeated two times. This would create the expectation that in this year we could anticipate four upsets - you know, if that kind of pattern existed anywhere but in our minds. With that said, the Vegas over/under for first-round upsets is 3.5. Of the 48 series in the past six years, one-third (16) have been upsets. In examining the trends in seeding match ups, it is clear that most of those upsets, as should be expected, come from the higher upset seeds: 1 seeds have won 9 series to 3 victories by 8th-seeded teams; 2 seeds are up 10-2, 3 and 6 seeds are tied 6-6, and 5 seeds lead 4 seeds 7-5. I was surprised that so many 8th-seeded teams have advanced, and that any seed between 3 and 6 has an equal chance of moving forward.

On the Conference Finals: Out of 24 Conference Finalists in the past six years, only 11 have been "expected" to be there as a 1 or 2 seed, and only three of the twelve Conference Finals have featured the expected match up of the 1-2 seeds. The likelihood of advancing to the Conference Finals, as expected, goes down as the seeds decrease. In the past six years, eleven 1 or 2 seeds have made it through, five 3 or 4 seeds, five 5 or 6 seeds, and three 7 or 8 seeds. These results corroborate what I found in examining the second round teams: teams seeded 1 and 2 have a higher likelihood of advancing, and teams seeded 3 through 6 have, roughly, the same chances of making it to the Conference Finals. It is interesting to note that the only 3-seed to make it through to the Conference Finals was last year's champion Boston Bruins. It is also interesting to see that, when we look at Conference Finalists compared to their initial match ups, there is a wide distribution. Of the 24 Conference Finalists, seven were winners of the 1-8 series; seven were winners of the 2-7 series; four were winners of the 3-6 series, and six were winners of the 4-5 series.

The Finalists: In order to increase the pool for examination, I decided to extend the period of observation back to 1994, when there was significant conference realignment. (There was subsequent divisional realignment in 1999, but it was much less severe than the shift from Wales and Campbell to Eastern and Western.) First of all, here is the list of teams that either won or lost a Final since 1994, organized by seed and listed by the year they won.

#1 seed won: 1994 (NYR), 1999 (Dal), 2002 (Det), 2004 (TB), 2008 (Det)
#1 seed Finalist: 1995 (Det), 2001 (NJ), 2011 (Van)
#2 seed won: 1996 (Col), 2003 (NJ), 2006 (Car), 2007 (Ana), 2010 (Chi)
#2 seed Finalist: 2000 (Dal), 2008 (Pit), 2009 (Det)
#3 seed won: 1997 (Det), 1998 (Det), 2011 (Bos)
#3 seed Finalist: 1997 (Phi), 2002 (Car)
#4 seed won: 2000 (NJ), 2009 (Pit)
#4 seed Finalist: 1996 (Fla), 1998 (Wsh), 2007 (Ott)
#5 seed won: 1995 (NJ)
#5 seed Finalist: N/A
#6 seed won: N/A
#6 seed Finalist: 2004 (Cal)
#7 seed won: N/A
#7 seed Finalist: 1994 (Van), 1999 (Buf), 2003 (Ana), 2010 (Phi)
#8 seed won: N/A
#8 seed Finalist: 2006 (Edm)

There are several observations to be made after examining this list. It is interesting that the number of 1 and 2 seeds that have advanced to the Finals is the same - eight - and that the ratio of winners to losers - 5 out of 8 - is identical. In fact, despite the lack of success of 3rd-seeded teams in the past six years, this list shows that 3 and 4 seeds have an approximately equal chance to one another of making it to the Finals and winning. After that, there is a significant drop-off, with only one champion seeded lower than 4th (the 1995 New Jersey Devils), and only two other teams advancing to the Finals from either the 5th, 6th, or 8th seeds. This is disproportionate to the ratios found in the six Conference Finals earlier - until we factor in the 7-seeds, of which four have made it through. If the ratio from the past six years of Conference Finals were extrapolated over the 17 Finals, we would expect that six teams would have made it to the Finals from an upset seed. When the 7 seeds are factored in, there are actually seven - higher than expected! Of course, none of them won - though all series went 6 or 7 games - but it's still interesting to note. I don't know why the 7-seed would make it through a disproportionately high number of times, either. So, what we've learned is that 1 and 2 seeds have a seemingly identical change of advancing to and winning the Cup, 3 and 4 seeds have the same odds, and 5-8 seeds, aside from a strange spike in the data at number 7, have an equal chance. Another interesting trend to note is that in those 17 Finals, only once have the two #1 seeds faced off in the Finals: in 2001, when Colorado defeated New Jersey. Only one other time have a 1 and 2 seed faced off - Detroit over Pittsburgh in 2008. So don't bet on the Rangers and Canucks facing off this year.

Division titles and fourth seeds: One other issue that came to my attention regards the policy of seeding division winners in the 1,2, and 3 spots, regardless of the records of the teams below them. This has been observed in both conferences this year, as Nashville would have been the 3rd seed by points in the West, whereas Pittsburgh would have been the 2nd seed in the East by points. I wanted to see how often this issue has come up in recent playoffs, so I looked at the past seven years (including this one). Here's what I found: Aside from Pittsburgh this year, the only other team that could have earned a 2nd seed was Nashville in 2007 in a wins tiebreaker over the team that won the Cup that year, Anaheim. In two cases - Anaheim in 2011 and the eventual champion Penguins in 2009 - the 4th-seeded team actually had the fourth-most points in the Conference, so they were accurately seeded. In the other ten cases, the team seeded 3rd because of winning their division should have been seeded 4th (or occasionally even lower, like this year). The NBA has established a great solution to this problem: a team that wins their division can be ranked either 3rd or 4th. They will never lose home-court advantage, but one team that has a better record that does not win their division can be ranked ahead of them. It seems, particularly with recent history in mind, that the NHL should adopt a similar solution to address the 71% of the time that this happens.

I know I haven't actually made my picks for this year, but I think (hope?)that this analysis has been helpful. Of course, it may not mean anything, but at least it has been fun trying to figure out if I could figure something out by crunching the numbers. I'll publish my picks within the next day or two, and I'll see if anything I've determined here will make a difference in how I pick them.

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