The 1990s had yet to see a back-to-back Lewis Cup winner but the Chicago Shamrocks entered the post-season confident that they would be the first one. Facing the 76-point Denver Bulls in the first round, The Shamrocks were almost unanimously picked to win the series with many predicting a sweep. Game one would be a shocker, as vintage Ron Buckner showed up in the Denver goal, earning a shutout in a 3-0 Bulls win. Game two was tight but seemed to be going Chicago’s way until Chris Falkner tied the game for Denver with just seconds left before Kaino Rippola won it for the Bulls just 31 seconds into overtime. In Denver, the Shamrocks won game three out of sheer desperation, but dropped game four when they once again struggled to solve Buckner. The defending champions were now down three games to one and facing elimination. Head coach Don Saleski altered his lines for game five, splitting up the Russian Connection line and placing Vladimir Kozakov on Martin Vannier’s line. It seemed to work, as Vannier and Kozakov combined for four points in a 5-2 win. After a hard-fought win on the road the Shamrocks managed to force a game seven at home. The Bulls opened the scoring on a goal from Oleg Markov, but the floodgates opened for Chicago after that. Gaganov, Kozakov, Ted MacDougall and Kavin Trainor all found the back of the net. As the Shamrocks and Bulls shook hands, Chicago fans breathed a huge sigh of relief as the Shamrocks advanced to the second round.
Chicago wasn’t the only contending team to survive a first-round scare. The Minnesota Lumberjacks continuously found themselves falling behind in their first-round series with Kansas City, eventually facing elimination in game six. With an opportunity to advance at home, Kansas City took an early 3-0 lead. But Minnesota came charging back in the second period, reducing the lead to 3-2 on goals from Jason Crowley and Greg Willis. Simon Brassard tied the game with four minutes left in the third period to send it to overtime. The first OT was scoreless, as goaltenders Christian Grayson for Minnesota and Jason Lind for Kansas City made save after save. Finally, just two minutes into the second OT, Pavel Vana beat Lind to force the series to a seventh game. The Lumberjacks completed the comeback with a 3-1 win in game seven.
In other Western Conference action the Calgary Wranglers swept the California Nuggets, while Edmonton pulled off the biggest upset of the first round, taking out LA in six games.
The Eastern Conference playoffs saw many of the same matchups from the previous year, as Toronto repeated their victory over Washington in five games, while Montreal once again won the battle of Quebec also in five. In the only new matchup, the New York Civics took six games to end Miami’s first playoff appearance.
In another rematch from ’94, the Boston Bulldogs met their longtime bitter rivals, the Philadelphia Redshirts. Boston got off to a strong start, winning game one 5-2, but went on to drop the next two as Philadelphia took a surprising 2-1 series lead. In game four, an overtime goal from captain Craig Bush tied the series, restoring home-ice advantage for the Bulldogs. Back home for a pivotal game five, the Bulldogs were confident they could take the lead in the series and give themselves an opportunity to advance. They found themselves down early when Jonathan Stafford and Brendan Carnes each scored to give the Redshirts a 2-0 lead. However, Boston battled back in the third period, with Kyle Boone and Jason Luna each scoring to bring the game to a 2-2 tie. The game would eventually go into overtime, where disaster struck for Boston. Veteran defenseman Dale Knight attempted to clear the puck from behind the net, but deflected it off the stanchion separating the glass and right onto the stick of Redshirts forward Owen Betts, who beat Kevin Washer for the win to give Philly a 3-2 series lead heading home. Game six at the PhillyDome was close, tied at 2-2 until midway through the third period, when Brendan Carnes gave the Redshirts the lead. Jeff Waters sealed the win with an empty-net goal and the Redshirts completed the upset and moved on to the second round.
The Redshirts reward for their upset over Boston was a second-round date with the first-place Toronto Racers. Heavily favoured to win the Eastern Conference title, the Racers appeared to be in control of the series. Despite dropping game two at home, Toronto dominated the Redshirts at both ends of the ice throughout the first three games, taking a 2-1 series lead. In game four they ran into trouble, giving up a 2-0 lead in the third period as Philly took the game 3-2. Game five went to overtime and Randy Fernandez ended it just 28 seconds in with a booming shot from the point, giving the Racers a chance to take the series in game six. In game six in Philadelphia, the Redshirts never let Toronto into the game. Waters and Carnes each scored while Stafford scored twice in a 4-1 Philly win. Game seven was close, going into overtime with the two teams tied 1-1. Both goaltenders, Tom Branson and Antero Parvainen were spectacular as one overtime turned into two. Finally, with one minute to go in the second overtime, Redshirts defenseman Brett Swift beat Branson with a hard shot to send the redshirts to the Eastern Conference Finals, where they would face the Montreal Royale, who were coming off a five-game victory over New York.
In the Western Conference, Chicago got another good scare when the Edmonton Northern Lights took a 2-1 series lead. Beginning in game four, however, Vladimir Gaganov took the team on his back, scoring two goals in game four, a goal and an assist in game five, and two more goals in a 4-0 win in game six to send Chicago back to the conference final.
Meanwhile, the Calgary Wranglers were beginning to earn a reputation as a team that couldn’t get it done in the playoffs. The Wranglers were determined to erase this reputation as they faced the Minnesota Lumberjacks. Game one was decisive, as Calgary won 6-1. Minnesota clung to a 2-1 lead in game two until late in the second period when Shannon Michaels tied it before Jay Lydon scored the eventual game-winner just minutes later. In Minnesota, game three would go to overtime, where Jason Crowley hit the post twice for the Lumberjacks before Sergei Krayev ended it for Calgary, giving them a commanding 3-0 series lead. Minnesota managed to avoid a sweep with a 4-1 win in game four, but it was too little too late as Calgary advanced to the Western Conference Finals for the first time since their championship season in 1981.
Facing the defending champion Chicago Shamrocks for the right to play for the Lewis Cup would be no easy task, and Chicago stifled Calgary immediately, shutting them out in the first two games. Calgary would finally find the back of the net in game three, finally arriving for the series with a 3-2 win, but the Shamrocks stormed back with a 4-2 victory in game four to take a commanding 3-1 lead. After making some adjustments in their lineup, the Wranglers staved off elimination with a big 3-1 road win. Calgary now had Chicago on their heels, as the Shamrocks now needed to close out the series on the road to avoid a decisive game seven. In game six, Sergei Krayev turned in one of the best performances of his career, scoring a hat-trick and assisting on a goal from Roni Laukkanen as the Wranglers forced game seven in Chicago. Game seven would be a classic. The Shamrocks led 3-1 through most of the game until Shannon Michaels finally brought the Wranglers within one with a goal early in the third period. In the dying seconds, Calgary pulled Ron Tatum in a desperate attempt to tie the game. Chicago cleared the puck with just five seconds left and it looked like the game was over until Jay Lydon picked up the puck, crossed the blueline and just whipped it at the net. The puck dipped and beat John Gage, crossing the goal line as the horn sounded. A video review confirmed that the puck did indeed cross the line just .3 seconds before the buzzer went off and the game went into overtime. After scoring the tying goal, Lydon nearly won it for Calgary just seconds into the extra frame but John Gage made a huge glove save to keep the Shamrocks alive. Just two minutes after the save, Martin Vannier was sprung on a breakaway. Vannier made no mistake, deking Tatum and sliding the puck under his pad to win the game and series for Chicago.
The Shamrocks would have an opportunity to defend their title against a familiar foe. The Montreal Royale never allowed the Philadelphia Redshirts into the Eastern Conference Finals, defeating them in five games, including an 8-0 blowout in game three. Vincent Ducharme turned in one of the best single-series performances in PHL history, scoring seven goals and eleven points in only five games. For the first time since 1962, the Lewis Cup Finals would be a rematch of the previous year.