Thursday, October 30, 2008

Quarterfinals Preview

Now that we've reached the postseason, it's time again for me to try and break down the playoff matches for you readers as best I can. While a lot of what I say can end up being utter nonsense (and as it pains me to mention, my chance of winning the prediction contest went awol with my Week 10 ineptitude), I should nevertheless point out that my preseason predictions (East, West) weren't too far off for the most part, having seven of eight playoff teams correct, and other than the Carolina fiasco, not really being too far off about any team's ending position. In regards to the Carolina issue, well I don't really know what to say. Maybe I screwed up? Of course, I'm sure there will be some lurkers out there who will announce how they knew Carolina was going to win the division all along and what an idiot I am for picking them last (whenever I predict anything wrong, there always tend to be some clear predicting geniuses out there who remind me, after the fact, that they KNEW all along that I said was going to be wrong, and this particular error should be no exception). One thing is pretty clear though: having predicted them to finish last and them then managing first, along with predicting Philadelphia last in 2007, who then went on to finish second, there will definitely be a bidding war amongst the teams trying to bribe me to pick them last in the East next year.

With there being two matches in each division in this first round of the playoffs unlike previous years, the number of different possible Semifinal and Final matches has greatly increased so instead of trying to break those down at this point (as I somewhat did last year in my Playoff Preview), I'll merely wait until those matchups are actually determined to give my insight into them (aside from giving some overall %'s for what I think each team's chances of winning the League at this point are).

So right now I'll try to break each Wildcard matchup down, first by what lineups I think we're likely to see from each team and then assuming the managers reach similar conclusions to my own, which color each team will then probably choose based on the expected lineups, and finally what I then think is most likely to happen once those choices are made.

Eastern Division:

Carolina Cobras vs New York Knights

As one might recall New York faced a very similar challenge last year in the first round of the playoffs, facing off against a team which they'd had no luck against in the regular season (granted that was two matches with no success, and this time it's only one, but nevertheless a 4 – 0 loss this time may be close to the same level), along with being up against draw odds (and this time color choice too)! Despite all that, they achieved a dominating victory in that circumstance then, and I certainly think it's possible that they may do so again. Both teams are unquestionably very hot right now with New York ending the regular season on a 4 – 0 tear to sneak into the playoffs, and Carolina, after starting 1 – 2, finishing the season 6 – 1 to capture the division.

In terms of lineups, I would very surprised if Carolina didn't show up bearing Milman + Zaikov + Simpson + Jones. The only other lineup I could see them using is Milman + Schroer + Zaikov + Bapat, but given the amount they've used the former lineup, along with how well Simpson and Jones have been doing recently, I think that lineup is a near guarantee. New York on the other hand is not quite as easy. I definitely expect them to use Charbonneau given how hot he's been recently, but that still leaves many options, and I could conceivably see any of these lineups showing up: Charbonneau + Fedorowicz + Braylovsky + Zenyuk, Charbonneau + Fedorowicz + Bonin + Herman / Zenyuk, Charbonneau + Krush + Braylovsky + Herman / Zenyuk. If one goes by sheer record, I would tend to favor the first lineup since when comparing Fedorowicz to Krush and Braylovsky to Bonin, it's clear that the former two have performed better this season. While one could argue in favor of using Herman given his impressive play at the end of the regular season, Zenyuk's had a rather small sample of games this season, and with her impressive play last season, I prefer that lineup. Of course there are definitely other factors since with White on that board New York might prefer Zenyuk and with Black they might prefer Herman. It could well be that the choice between those two will hinge on what color Carolina ends up picking, but there is also the issue that the likely Board Four opponent, Craig Jones, defeated Zenyuk earlier in the season while Herman got the best of him in their 2006 Wildcard game. If New York does wind up going with Herman on four, then the main choice for two and three is really between Fedorowicz + Bonin and Krush + Braylovsky, something which I really could see them going either way on.

So while there is clearly some uncertainty in the lineups, it seems overwhelmingly likely that we will see a Milman vs Charbonneau confrontation on the top board. As one might recall, these two met three times in 2006 (Week 4, Week 7, and Wildcard) with the Black player getting the best of each encounter. That certainly is one reason for Carolina to choose Black for this match as the two White boards might well be better suited for two and four. Combine that with the fact that New York may well have Krush on two or Zenyuk on four (or even both!), two players who typically do far better with White, Carolina seems very likely to choose Black for this match.

So who really has the advantage then? It's never easy to say in a USCL match, even if one team has draw odds. People have been anticipating when Carolina's Cinderella run might end, but they continue to defy everyone's expectations. While I can't pick against them given they have the inherent advantages of draw odds and color choice, given New York's huge momentum and track record for overcoming adversity and draw odds (which they have done in one match each of the last two seasons), I can't really pick against them either. Carolina and New York each advance 50%.

Queens Pioneers vs Boston Blitz

If one had asked who would be favored under these circumstances a few weeks ago when Queens was sitting at 5.5 – 1.5 and Boston at 3 – 4, I have a feeling most would have said that Queens would be huge favorites with draw odds. But suddenly with Queens struggling down the stretch to losing their seemingly iron grip on the division title, and Boston ending with three straight fairly dominating wins (in particular the thrashing Boston gave to Queens themselves in Week 10), it now seems very unclear.

In terms of lineups, I would definitely expect Boston to show up bearing Christiansen + Perelshteyn / Sammour-Hasbun + Esserman + Krasik. Of course, they have several other strong lineups, but given how hot Esserman has been recently along with Krasik's three straight wins to close out the season (a large part of why Boston was also able to achieve the same streak of wins), it seems very unlikely they would switch from something that's been working so well. Queens is tougher to nail down as I'm really quite unsure what to expect. The lineup they used last week in their loss of Schneider + Vovsha + Lenderman + Katz is certainly a reasonable one, but they will likely be inclined to switch after that tough defeat. Adding that to the fact that Stripunsky has been playing quite well this season, I would most expect a lineup of him along with two of the IMs and Ostrovskiy. I could also see them using Stripunsky, one of their IMs, along with Zhao and Thaler, but I tend to think the former type is the most likely.

In regards to what color Boston will pick, given who we are likely to see on the top two boards, it doesn't seem like having White on Board One compared to Board Two will really make much of a difference in terms of which place would be more advantageous to have White and so the bottom boards may well determine that. Clearly if we see another Esserman vs Lenderman battle, Boston will definitely want White there, but I think the most important thing would probably be giving Krasik White as looking at his record with each color this season (3.5 – 0.5 with White and 1 – 3 with Black), it's hard to imagine having White could be a bigger benefit anywhere else.

Assuming that the lineups and color are chosen as such, I foresee a match very even on the top two boards (maybe a slight Boston advantage), Queens likely favored on three, and Boston favored on four. All other things being equal, I would likely give Boston the slight edge, but with Queens having draw odds, they should still have the upper hand. Queens advances 59%.

Western Division:

Miami Sharks vs Seattle Sluggers

Seattle dominated the first three meetings between these two teams, but Miami has gotten the better of the last two encounters, including a dominating 3.5 – 0.5 victory in the first week of this season. A tough match lies ahead for sure, but Seattle has to be relieved to still be alive since they seemed to be on the verge of being eliminated in Week 10 so it should be interesting to see if they can make something out of their good fortune.

In terms of Miami's lineup, I really see two main possibilities. The first main choice they have is Becerra + Lopez / Perea + Galofre + Rodriguez and the other is Becerra + Lopez + Perea + Prilleltensky. Both of those lineups seem to have their salient points, the first being how well Rodriguez has played this year with a 5 – 1 record and the second being how solid both Lopez and Perea have been. It's very difficult to claim either lineup is strictly better than the other, but I would anticipate them using the latter lineup as that's the lineup they've been using recently and was responsible for the late season surge which made them division champions. For Seattle, if you had told me they would be in the playoffs in the middle portion of the season, I would definitely have anticipated that they would use their double GM lineup when they reached this point (Nakamura + Serper + Readey / Lee + May), but now I'm not nearly as certain. Simply put, given how well Mikhailuuk has played, winning his last four games, there is every reason to think that they might instead go with a more balanced lineup (Nakamura / Serper + Mikhailuk + Readey + Lee). I really don't know which they will end up going for, it may well be determined by what color Miami happens to choose for the match.

So which color should Miami choose based on that? Since each team's lineups may well depend on that very issue (especially with Seattle, given how different their double GM lineup really is from their balanced lineup), it's difficult to say for certain that one choice is better than the other. But if my hunch about the lineup Miami will use is right, I tend to think they're going to pick White almost for sure given how well both Becerra and Perea have done with the White pieces this year.

In terms of who has an advantage, I have to favor Miami quite reasonably as they really have outperformed Seattle on the bottom boards this year (Miami with 5 – 5 versus Seattle's 2 – 8 on Board Three along with Miami's 7.5 – 2.5 on Board Four versus Seattle's 4.5 – 5.5), and I think their advantage there along with draw odds should help them carry the day. Miami advances 68%.

San Francisco Mechanics vs Dallas Destiny

The last two USCL Champions meet in the Quarterfinals, with only one advancing to the Semifinals, in what should be a very interesting match.

San Francisco is in the unfamiliar position of having lost their last two matches, but with their two main young stars (newly crowned World Under 18 Co-Champion, Sam Shankland, and last year's World Under 12 Champion, Daniel Naroditsky) having been away, there definitely could be a reason for that. Being that as it is (the record of their team without those two compared to with it), I would definitely expect them to go with a lineup of Two of Wolff / Friedel / Bhat + Shankland + Naroditsky. Dallas has a wide variety of lineups they can use, especially with how many different ways they have to fill their top two boards, but based on each player's record this season, one lineup clearly seems to rise above the rest, that being Zivanic + Kuljasevic + Schneider + Zorigt (actually the lineup that Dallas used in both regular season encounters with San Francisco this year).

In regards to what color Dallas will pick, that seems like a very tough question. I'm sure they want to give their main trump, Kuljasevic, White, but at the same time, they probably want San Francisco's main trump, Shankland, to have Black. Since they (assuming they go with the lineups I mentioned) cannot have both, it seems somewhat unclear which choice they will make. Personally I would lean towards them picking White since if the color issue of Boards Two and Three close to balance each other out, it seems more likely to be a help to them on Board One than Four. But as mentioned, I definitely feel it's close, and the color choice here is the most unclear one to me amongst the four Wildcard matches.

In terms of who'll have the advantage, in my view, whichever color Dallas picks, likely the Board One and Board Four games will balance each other out, and similarly with Boards Two and Boards Three, but on those the latter boards I tend to give San Francisco a bit of an overall edge. Along with draw odds, I think the Mechanics have a very good shot. San Francisco advances 65%.

Since, as I said above, there are simply too many possibilities at this time to go into depth about the Semifinal or Final matches, I'll simply end with what I think each remaining team's chances of winning the Championship at this point are.

Miami: 21%

San Francisco: 18%

Queens: 15%

Boston: 14%

Dallas: 10%

New York: 9%

Carolina: 7%

Seattle: 6%

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