Philadelphia (1) vs Miami (8)
The defending Eastern Conference Champions met the 2003 Eastern Conference regular season champs in what many hoped would be one of the best series in the playoffs. The Redshirts outscored the Stingrays 4-0 in the first two games to take a 2-0 series lead before the Rays finally solved Pierre Noel, eking out two overtime wins to tie the series 2-2. Jared Baxter would be the hero in games five and six as Philadelphia advanced in six games.
Toronto (2) vs Detroit (7)
In one of the most unusual series in PHL history, the Racers and Mustangs skated to overtime in each of the four games. Joe Murdock had the winner in both the first two games at Queen Elizabeth Arena to give Toronto a 2-0 lead. In game three in Detroit, the Mustangs gave up a 2-0 lead late in the third as the Racers sent it to overtime once again, where this time veteran Jason Luna won it to put Detroit on the ropes. In game four, it was captain Randy Fernandez who finally completed the sweep for the Racers in a series that was much closer than it appeared.
Atlanta (3) vs Montreal (6)
After clinching their first-ever playoff spot in only their second season, the Copperheads were full of confidence entering their series with Montreal. However the Royale put a damper on Atlanta right away with a 3-0 win in game one. The Royale then won the next two to lead the series 3-0, but the Copperheads salvaged the series with a big 4-2 victory, the first post-season win in franchise history, thanks to a hat-trick from rookie Jason Ferland. In Atlanta two nights later, the Copperheads’ run finally came to an end, but the Atlanta crowd gave their team a standing ovation as they left the ice.
Boston (4) vs Long Island (5)
It had been eleven years since the last time the once-vicious Boston/Long Island rivalry took place in the post-season. Entering the first round of the 2003 playoffs, only the Concorde’s backup goaltender Geoff Larter had appeared in that last series in 1992. It would not take long for the two teams to rediscover their mutual hatred. The teams split the first four games and it game three, a big hit from Long Island’s Riley Gardiner on Boston’s Mikael Larsson resulted in a fight-filled third period which spilled over into game four, where the two captains, Scott Rose and Ryan Shelton squared off to the delight of the Long Island crowd. The Bulldogs went on to win in overtime as Rose completed a “George Allen Hat-trick” of a goal, an assist and a fight. Boston ultimately won the series in six games.
Dallas (1) vs Edmonton (8)
Edmonton made their first playoff appearance in six seasons while Dallas entered the playoffs for the first time as a true contender. The Northern Lights, led by Super Rookie Kris Nazarenko, stunned the Desperados 4-2 in the opener, but Dallas bounced back to take a 2-1 series lead by game three. Edmonton tied the series in game four to set up a pivotal game five in Texas, where AJ Vernon gave Nazarenko all he could handle physically while earning two points in a Dallas win. The Northern Lights forced a seventh game where they finally ran out of gas, as Dallas took the series with a 5-1 victory.
Minnesota (2) vs Kansas City (7)
After dominating the Western Conference around the turn of the century, the Lumberjacks and Twisters both found themselves struggling to regain their status as top contenders as the 2000s progressed. After a tough season in which they barely made the playoffs, the Twisters stunned the Lumberjacks when they jumped to a 3-1 series lead. The ‘Jacks salvaged the series in game five, but it was too little too late, as the Twisters advanced with a 3-0 win in game six.
Seattle (3) vs Vancouver (6)
In a matchup PHL fans had been waiting for since the 1970s, Pacific Northwest rivals Vancouver and Seattle finally faced off in the playoffs. The teams skated to a tie in the first four games, then things got out of hand. During the regular season, Vancouver’s Jonathan Adams had avoided a suspension after a nasty hit on Seattle’s Olli Heikkinen. With game five already clinched by Seattle, the Wolves took matters into their own hands. Scott Lindsay challenged Adams to a fight, then went after Vancouver forward Andrei Yegorov with a punch to the face, which immediately drew a crowd. In all, over 80 minutes in penalties were handed out in the final seven minutes of play. Lindsay was suspended for game six and the Bighorns won another slugfest 3-0, but in game seven, the Wolves regained their composure and discipline in time to take the series in game seven with a 4-1 win.
Chicago (4) vs Milwaukee (5)
After pulling themselves out of a late-season slump, the Shamrocks used the momentum to immediately take a 2-0 series lead against their northern rivals. But Milwaukee came storming back, as the offensively challenged Choppers relied heavily on the play of goaltender Matt Darwin to tie the series. In game five, Chicago’s offense was too much, as Jonathan Wheatley had two goals including the OT winner in a 3-2 win. The Shamrocks finished the Choppers with a 3-1 win in game six to advance.
Philadelphia vs Montreal
The Philadelphia Redshirts entered the 2003 playoffs heavily favoured to win the Eastern Conference and as a popular pick to take their second Lewis Cup. Meanwhile, the Montreal Royale were seen as a team in transition, now two years removed from the retirement of legend Vincent Ducharme. Embracing their underdog status, Montreal unexpectedly dominated their “original eight” rivals in the first two games, then took games four and five in overtime at home to complete the upset. “It was a fun series” said Royale forward Aaron Duplacy, I think this team has a lot of confidence after that one.”
Toronto vs Boston
The Boston Bulldogs rebuild appeared to finally be over after advancing to the second round for the second straight year, but the Joe Murdock show awaited them in the second round. After scoring two OT winners in round one against Detroit, Murdock exploded for seven goals including a pair of two-goal performances in a six-game victory over the Bulldogs. There was some controversy after an 8-2 Boston blowout in game five, however. Head coach Rex Hull pulled goaltender Jake Borman after allowing six goals in favour of Jussi Sykko, to which Borman responded by destroying a stick rack in the hallway. Despite speculation that Sykko might start game six, Hull went with Borman, who stopped 42 shots for a shutout. “Jake’s a competitor” said Hull. “He was angrier than anyone about his performance in game five, I had no hesitation putting him back in.”
Dallas vs Kansas City
The Dallas Desperados may have been the best team in the Western Conference during the regular season, but seemed a little tired after a tough 7-game battle with Edmonton. Dallas soon found themselves down 2-1 to Kansas City, before a two-day break due to a concert at KC Sportsplex gave them an opportunity to recharge. The Desperados responded with a pair of wins to lead the series, but disaster struck at the end of game five, when goaltender Alexei Rolonov was injured, forcing backup Jimmy Goren into the net for game six. The Twisters, benefiting from Brett Delaney’s two-goal night forced game seven back in Dallas, where Goren was solid in the net for the home team. Late in the third period, a goal from Shawn Marchinski gave Dallas the lead, and ultimately the win as the Desperados advanced to the Western Conference Finals for the first time in their history.
Seattle vs Chicago
The Chicago Shamrocks seemed to be well past their late-season struggles in their six-game victory over Milwaukee, but the real test would come in the second round, where they faced the defending champion Seattle Grey Wolves. To the surprise of the entire hockey world, Chicago found themselves up 3-1 after four games. Seattle would force a game six, then took a 2-0 lead in game six before the Shamrocks stormed back to win 4-2 to advance to the Western Conference Finals.
Toronto vs Montreal
Ever since the PHL began in 1939, Toronto and Montreal battled for the title of “Canada’s Team”. The two rivals met in the first-ever league final in 1940. Toronto won the series that year and dominated the rivalry early on. However, the arrival of Vincent Ducharme in Montreal in the 1980s gave Montreal the edge as they took their turn as the most popular team in the country. By 2003, Ducharme had been retired for two years and a new generational talent was emerging in Southern Ontario. Joe Murdock continued to tear through the playoffs, opening the Conference final series with Montreal with a hat-trick, then scored twice again in game three as the two teams entered game five tied 2-2. Jake Borman stood tall for the Racers in game five, earning a shutout to give the Racers an opportunity to close the series out in Montreal. Game six was close, with both teams exchanging leads until overtime, where Andrew Cox proved to be the hero for Toronto, sending them to the Lewis Cup Finals for the first time since 1979.
Dallas vs Chicago
While the Western Conference Final was packed with historical undertones, the West final may have been the most thrilling series in PHL history. The Chicago Shamrocks, who had been solid throughout the spring, came out flat early on against the Dallas Desperados. Dallas jumped to a commanding 3-0 series lead and the hockey world immediately began preparing for a Lewis Cup Final featuring the Desperados. The Fort Worth Star-Telegram even ran an article speculating on whether the Desperados would face Montreal or Toronto in the next series while analyzing their chances against both. Game four was supposed to be a formality, especially with Dallas up 3-2 with nine seconds left, until Gustav Mattsen tied it, then Martin Vannier won it just 19 seconds into OT. Confident that they would still take the series at home, the Desperados forgot to show up for game five, falling behind 3-0 in the first period. A comeback attempt fell short, as did a desperate attempt to salvage the series in game six. The Chicago Shamrocks had unbelievably brought the series to game seven. Back at TexOil Center for game seven, the Desperados were simply out of gas. With a 6-0 victory, the Shamrocks had pulled off the impossible, becoming the first team in professional sport to win a best-of-seven series after trailing 3-0. “You have to give them credit” said Desperados head coach Willy Rowe. “I think we learned a tough lesson, don’t forget to finish the series before celebrating.”