Blues look to be playoff-bound

Open Ice
The St. Louis Blues are fighting for their playoff lives and take on the Detroit Red Wings, the best team in the Western Conference, Thursday night on ESPN2.

St. Louis enters the game tied with the Edmonton Oilers for the eighth and final playoff spot in the West, but the Blues hold the tiebreaker by virtue of having more wins, and with three games remaining they look to be safely in the postseason. The Oilers have just one game left on the schedule while ninth-place Nashville is just two points behind and also has three games remaining.

After playing host to the Red Wings, St. Louis closes with games at Nashville and at Minnesota, games they should be able to win to solidify their playoff standing. But what the Blues do once they get there could be another story.

With top defensemen Al MacInnis and Barret Jackman out for the season, St. Louis probably does not have enough to beat Detroit or the Colorado Avalanche in the first round. The Blues may have a chance against San Jose, though, a 100-point team that is relatively unknown and probably not one of the best two teams in the West. Chris Osgood is an experienced goaltender who won a Stanley Cup in Detroit and he will give them at least a fighting chance in that kind of series.

My guess is St. Louis is in, but it could be one series and out for the Blues.

A word on Mark Messier
The New York Rangers' captain and the NHL's second-leading all-time scorer, Mark Messier played perhaps his last game at home this week as he considers retirement. Messier is one of the best power forwards to ever play the game and the epitome of what the NHL wants its players to be: tough, skilled and brave. He can play any style of hockey and is simply one of the five best players of all time.

But beyond the offensive stats the NHL will lose one of its greatest leaders ever if Messier hangs up his skates. He captained the Edmonton Oilers to the Stanley Cup in 1990 after Wayne Gretzky had been traded to the Los Angeles Kings, willing a collection of young players like Joe Murphy and Adam Graves to the Cup. But he may be best known for ending 40-plus years of Cup futility by leading the Rangers to the top in 1994. His guarantee of a Game 6 win over the New Jersey Devils to keep New York alive in the conference finals -- which he backed up with a hat trick -- is one of the great moments in Rangers history.

Mark Messier will be missed all across the league.

Plus: Edmonton Oilers, Buffalo Sabres
They may not make the playoffs, but both of these teams came from way back to get into the playoff hunt. They never gave up and they fought their way into the top eight. They're running out of time but they came on when no one gave them a chance and that kind of mental toughness is what hockey is all about.

Minus: The loss of Mark Messier
If he retires, the NHL not only loses a great player and leader but a great ambassador. Messier is one of the faces fans can identify with. They knew him immediately and knew what he was all about, and there is not enough of that in the NHL right now. Mark will be missed.

This week's starting lineup

Ty Conklin, Jussi Markkanen, Montreal Canadiens: Conklin has won six of eight starts in March while Markkanen has allowed more than two goals in just one of his six starts since coming over from the Rangers. They've been one of the biggest reasons for the Oilers' late surge.

Dmitri Kalinin, Buffalo Sabres: He jumps into the play well and has five points in the last four games. Kalinin has been forced to play a lot of minutes because of an injury to Alexei Zhitnik and has stepped nicely into his expanded role.

Eric Brewer, Edmonton Oilers: Another reason the Oilers have come on down the stretch is the active play of Brewer, who is moving the puck well and getting involved all over the ice.

Daniel Briere, Buffalo Sabres: Scored his 27th goal of the season Wednesay night and has a five-game point streak going as the Sabres cling to their playoff lives.

Pavel Datsyuk, Detroit Red Wings: Has seven points, including a five-game goal streak, since coming back from an ankle injury and has some of the best hands in the game.

Ethan Moreau, Edmonton Oilers: Has reached the 20-goal mark for the first time in his career and epitomizes the young, fast-skating, all-around players Edmonton has on the roster.

I've spent my first two years at Boston College attending each and every home hockey game in addition to others, like the Beanpot Tournament. With the Frozen Four just around the corner, I would like to know what you think of NCAA hockey and its future in the United States. The atmosphere at each game is unbelievable, the style is exciting thanks to no two-line passes and there seems to be more passion on a game-to-game basis. Do you think we will ever see a college hockey showcase on a network like ESPN so exciting games can be broadcast to a national audience?

--Joe, Milton, Mass.

I like the college game, Joe. The hockey is great and the students in the buildings make for a great atmosphere. Tradition is big in NCAA hockey, as well. Don't forget that every player on the 1980 U.S. Olympic team came from the college ranks. And we've got plenty of NCAA alumni in the NHL right now with players like Paul Kariya, Brian Leetch, Keith Tkachuk, Doug Weight and a host of others. The product is outstanding and is a great way for kids to get to the NHL. I like the intensity, too. College teams play twice a week -- mostly on the weekends -- so it's easy to get up and play hard for two games. As for a national showcase, I would like to see that but I think hockey has to edge closer to basketball and football in terms of popularity among college sports before we try spreading it across the nation.

E-mail bag
Hey, Barry:
Which is a bigger loss to his team and its Stanley Cup chances: Keith Primeau to Philadelphia Flyers or Scott Stevens to the New Jersey Devils?

-- Dennis, Menlo Park, N.J.

Well, the good news for the Flyers is that both Primeau and Eric Desjardins are due back Thursday against the Montreal Canadiens so things are getting better in Philly. But a defenseman is always more important than a forward, and Stevens is not only one of the best defensemen ever to play the game but he is also New Jersey's captain and leader. He is hard to replace with his 30 minutes of ice time every night and duties on special teams. Teams have four centermen but usually only one player like Stevens so I would say he leaves a bigger hole. Any team with Martin Brodeur in goal has a chance to win, but the Devils are a different team without Stevens on the ice, especially when Scott Gomez and Patrik Elias are the only guys scoring much. They will get much more attention in the playoffs and I don't see New Jersey having much of a chance to win the Cup without Stevens and the defensive stability he provides.

Barry Melrose, a former NHL defenseman and coach, is a hockey analyst for ESPN. He'll answer selected questions submitted to his e-mail bag each week. Also, click here to send Barry a question for possible use on ESPNEWS.