When Gary Kasparov sat down with a chess-playing computer named Deep Blue in 1996, Kasparov managed to pull out the victory. A year later, however, a revamped Deep Blue knocked off a man considered by many to be the greatest chess player of all time, showing that on occasion artificial intelligence can outwit the actual variety.
Deep Blue was programmed by IBM, but after watching the outcome of last spring's Stanley Cup Playoffs one has to wonder if the folks at EA SPORTS also had a hand in it.
A year ago EA SPORTS ran each NHL postseason series through its NHL 11 Simulation Engine and churned out remarkable results. The simulations correctly predicted the winners of 13 of the 15 series played in the 2011 Stanley Cup Playoffs -- a number that would have been 14 had the Canucks been able to protect home ice in Game 7 of the 2011 Stanley Cup Final. In 2010, EA's simulation engine correctly predicted the Chicago Blackhawks would end their 49-year Cup drought.
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All of that correct prognosticating has given EA some tough acts to follow, but that doesn't mean the sports video game developers aren't trying. EA SPORTS released its predictions for the first round of the 2012 Stanley Cup Playoffs on Tuesday, using its updated NHL 12 Simulation Engine, a computerized simulation that factors in variables such as statistics, player ratings, line combinations, injuries and streaky play.
This time around, EA doesn't see much room for upsets. In the Eastern Conference, the Rangers and Bruins both advance comfortably, defeating the Senators and Capitals in five and four games, respectively. In the West, Vancouver and St. Louis both advanced in the simulation, but the path wasn't quite as smooth as it was for the top two seeds in the other conference. The Kings and Sharks both last six games before bowing out to the higher seeds.
At the bottom of the bracket in each conference, however, things get interesting. EA has pegged the Devils to make the Panthers' return to the postseason a brief one, but not before Florida pushes New Jersey to a seventh game at the BankAtlantic Center. That New Jersey is picked to win may not be an enormous shock considering the Devils did finish with eight more points in the standings than Florida, but the 3-versus-6 series in the West is a little more surprising. The Blackhawks did finish the regular season with four more points than the Pacific Division-champion Coyotes, but Phoenix was brilliant down the stretch winning its final five games. No matter, according to EA. The simulation engine has the Blackhawks winning in just five games.
Most people believe the 4-versus-5 series in each conference to be the most-closely matched, and EA seems to agree. In its simulation, both Pittsburgh and Philadelphia as well as Nashville and Detroit went the distance in a seven-game series. In the end however, EA sees Nashville finally breaking its playoff hex against the Red Wings and the Pens surviving the battle of Pennsylvania to advance.
According to the simulation, those Penguins have two of the usual suspects with an early leg up on the Conn Smythe race, as Evgeni Malkin finished the first round with six goals and three assists while Sidney Crosby tallied two goals and six assists. Henrik Lundqvist (1.40 goals-against average, one shutout) and Jaroslav Halak (1.60 GAA, two shutouts) also enter the discussion.
After an impressive 2011, EA will begin to see how well it matches up with its 2012 simulation when the playoffs begin Wednesday night. Predictions for subsequent rounds will be released as matchups are determined.