Entering their first round series against the very average Vancouver Bighorns, the Milwaukee Choppers were a very confident group. With fifteen points separating the two teams, the Chops were the overwhelming favorite. Needless to say, hockey fans everywhere were stunned when the Bighorns won game one at the Milwaukee Arena 6-1. Brushing it off as a fluke, the Choppers recovered with a 4-2 win in game two, before Vancouver won games 3 & 4 in overtime to take a commanding 3-1 series lead. After their best regular season in franchise history, the Choppers season was now on the brink. “We haven’t really faced adversity like this all year, well here it is now and we have to find a way to respond” said captain Bruce Gratton. The Choppers did respond in game five with a big 3-2 win, before forcing game seven with a 5-2 victory. Game seven was a tight one, with the two teams tied through two periods. With less than one minute left, Travis Curry suddenly tipped an Olivier Meloche point shot into the net to give the Choppers the lead. Vancouver pressed hard but could not solve Scott Daffney. Gratton scored the empty-netter as the Milwaukee Choppers pulled off the comeback and advanced to the second round. Meanwhile, the Edmonton Northern Lights’ series with the Winnipeg Pioneers proved to be one of the most physical series played in a long time. The home team won every game as Edmonton advanced in seven games. In other Western Conference action, David Appleby and the Spirits defeated Minnesota in five games, while Vladimir Gaganov continued his scoring prowess from the regular season, leading the Chicago Shamrocks in a stunning six-game upset over Seattle.
In the Eastern Conference, Pittsburgh once again had their sights set on winning their second championship. The first two games against Boston predictably went in Pittsburgh’s favor, with the Stingers winning 5-3 and 4-3 to take a 2-0 series lead. After the Bulldogs won their first game at home, Pittsburgh jumped to a 3-1 series lead. Determined to prove themselves as an elite team, the Bulldogs managed to win two tight games to force the series to game seven. Game seven was all Pittsburgh in the first period as the Stingers took a 2-0 lead in the first period. But Boston never gave up. Craig Bush scored twice to tie the game, before Danny Stevenson once again put the Stingers ahead 3-2. Nate Carroll restored Pittsburgh’s two-goal lead before Jason Luna and Aaron Goodwin each scored to tie the game once again and send it into overtime. Nineteen seconds into overtime, Bush completed the hat-trick to stun the Pittsburgh crowd and complete the upset. The devastating loss was especially tough to take for Nate Carroll, who had played his final PHL game. The Pittsburgh crowd gave Carroll a standing ovation as he skated off the ice with his teammates.
In other Eastern Conference action, Montreal gave the Philadelphia Redshirts a good scare, taking a 2-1 series lead before the Redshirts, led by captain Gary Johnson, ultimately won the series 4-2. Brent MacDonald continued his brilliant play in Nova Scotia as the Claymores defeated the Quebec Nationale in five games.
In the second round of the playoffs, Chicago, fresh off their thrilling upset, would move on to face the St. Louis Spirits. David Appleby’s hat-trick in game one led the Spirits to a 6-2 victory, while Grant Millen proved to be the hero in game two, scoring the winner in overtime for a 5-4 win. In Chicago for game three, Appleby and Gaganov each had two goals in a high scoring affair as the Spirits took a commanding 3-0 series lead with an 8-6 victory. It was not all good news for the Spirits, however, as Appleby was knocked out of the game late in the third period with a separated shoulder after a hard hit from Dusty Hedley. With Appleby out of the lineup, the Spirits struggled to find chemistry in game four and the Shamrocks won 5-4 thanks to a big third period goal from Graham Boswell. Grant Millen put the Spirits on his back in game five, scoring two goals and adding an assist in a 4-3 St. Louis victory that propelled them to the Western Conference Finals once again. The Spirits’ opponent in the Western Final would be a familiar foe, the Milwaukee Choppers, who defeated the Edmonton Northern Lights in a hard-fought five game series.
In the Eastern Conference, Boston ran out of gas against the Nova Scotia Claymores as Nova Scotia won in five games, while Long Island faced the Philadelphia Redshirts in a tough seven-game series. The series was tied 2-2 after the first four games. Long Island pulled ahead 3-2 in game five thanks to a huge effort in net from goaltender Pascal Renaud. In game six, Gary Johnson became the first defenseman in PHL history to score a hat-trick in the post-season as the Redshirts forced game seven in Long Island. Game seven would result in yet another heartbreaking end for the Redshirts as former California Nugget Alan Chadwick’s late-third period goal gave the Concordes a 3-2 win to send them to the Eastern Conference Finals.
Long Island hoped to carry the momentum into the Eastern Conference Finals against Nova Scotia, but struggled early on as Nova Scotia won the first two games at home to take a 2-0 series lead at home. The Claymores were charging through the playoffs and it looked as if Russel Buchanan’s promise of a return to the Lewis Cup Finals might actually come true. The Concordes came out strong in game three, ultimately winning 4-2. Game four went into overtime and Nova Scotia was determined to get a big 3-1 series lead heading home. With only forty seconds left in the first overtime, Dave Mack hit the post on a breakaway just seconds before Harry Hayes just missed a wide open net. The Concordes pushed but could not solve Brent MacDonald throughout the second period until finally, Prince Edward Island native Doug Macintyre scored to give Long Island the win and tie the series. Game five also went into overtime and once again, Macintyre proved to be the hero as the Concordes pulled ahead in the series 3-2. The Claymores had had a 2-0 series lead and now faced elimination. Game six looked like it might go to OT as well as the teams were deadlocked 2-2. Then, with just three minutes left, Stuart Burns beat MacDonald to give the Concordes a 3-2 lead. The stunned Claymores tried hard to tie the game, but Theo Sprouse finally sealed the game with an empty-net goal as Long Island advanced to the Lewis Cup Finals for the second time in their history.
In the Western Conference Finals, the Milwaukee Choppers faced the Mighty St. Louis Spirits, playing without David Appleby who was still out with a shoulder injury. Bruce Gratton scored twice as the Choppers won game one 6-2, then Grant Millen once again took the Spirits on his back, carrying the team to a 6-4 win in game two. Mike Fleming won game three for the Choppers in overtime, then set up Tony Knight for the winner in game four as Milwaukee found themselves just one win away from their first-ever appearance in the Lewis Cup Finals. In game five, St. Louis received a surprise, David Appleby would return to the lineup. Despite intense pain in his shoulder, Appleby scored twice in a 5-3 St. Louis win, then scored a hat-trick in a 6-5 win in game six to extend the series to a seventh game in St. Louis. Prior to game seven, David Appleby needed a trainer to tie his skates with the pain in his shoulder. That did not stop him from assisting on a Niklas Ekberg goal to open the game. It would not be enough, however, as Gratton, Terry Hawkins, and Travis Curry each scored to eliminate the Spirits and send the Choppers to their first-ever Lewis Cup Finals, just three years after relocating to Milwaukee.