When Andrew Peeke left Notre Dame with a year left in his college eligibility, he did so with the belief he had the ability to play hockey at the highest level.
He might have found out Saturday night that he was right.
Peeke has been going through the usual ups-and-downs for a rookie defenseman with the Blue Jackets since being pressed into service as the Columbus blue line has become the black-and-blue line through injury.
And when Peeke took the ice Saturday, he did so against the top two point scorers in the NHL in Leon Draisaitl and Connor McDavid. Basically, the stats show there's no one in the NHL -- and thus the hockey world -- at creating offense, and Peeke would get his chance to play against the top scorers and prove his worth.
He did just that. Peeke got almost four minutes of ice time against Draisaitl and more than two against McDavid at 5-on-5, and while it wasn't a huge sample size, the possession numbers and advanced stats showed the teams played to a draw in that time. In addition, the Oilers didn't score a goal when Peeke was on the ice along with defensive partner Scott Harrington.
"It brings the best out of you," he said. "You want to be up for that challenge playing against guys like McDavid and Draisaitl, two of the highest point scorers in the world right now. You want to show that you can defend them and they can't score against you.
"I thought I held my own for sure. I was able to make a lot of plays and get good reads and have good gaps. Those are the things I've been talking about each game. You have to be aware of McDavid's speed, for example, and Draisaitl's strength and passing. You just have to find the positioning and know when to do certain things, but at the end of the day, it's just hockey. You're just trying to play your game and what makes you successful as player."
By and large, Peeke has been successful in his first pro season with the Blue Jackets organization. The 21-year-old defenseman built his game and his leadership credentials the past three seasons with the Fighting Irish, then nearly made the Blue Jackets out of training camp this year as he was the last cut ahead of opening day.
The depth of the defensive corps was billed as the strength of the team, so it seemed reasonable for Peeke to start at AHL Cleveland and get his feet wet in the pro game. He did that for about two months before the injury bug hit, with Peeke making his NHL debut Dec. 5. He played in seven games before suffering a finger injury, then returned to the Blue Jackets' lineup in early February.
With Seth Jones and Dean Kukan out for the foreseeable future, Peeke looks like a regular on the third pair. It's not always perfect -- he had a rough game in Philadelphia last month when two goals deflected in off his skates, for example -- but his numbers have been solid. In addition to a goal and two assists in 22 games and a plus-1 rating while playing 13:51 per night, he's added some penalty killing responsibilities of late.
The Blue Jackets also have advantages in shots, scoring chances and expected goals at 5-on-5 when Peeke is on the ice, and the opposition's 7.15 high-danger chances per 60 when Peeke is skating is best among team defensemen.
"He just plays," head coach John Tortorella said. "He makes some mistakes, but he doesn't let it affect him his next shift. I like his aggressiveness, his physical play under the hash. There are mistakes -- there are some plays where I think sometimes we can get out cleaner -- but this is a young man that we did not think was going to be thrust into this position and get the minutes that he's playing in the situation we're in in the season. I think he's handled himself really well."
Defense has been Peeke's calling card throughout, as the second-round pick was always billed as someone who could be a shutdown defenseman given his physicality, size and ability to play with his stick.
But the past two seasons have proved there might be some offensive upside in the Parkland, Fla., native's game as well. Peeke had a career-high 24 points last year with Notre Dame and totaled five goals and 16 points in 29 games with Cleveland, and he's started to show an aggressiveness when it comes to jumping forward in the rush with the Blue Jackets.
He had his first career NHL goal when he jumped on a rebound to score Feb. 16 vs. New Jersey, and he also had a beauty of an assist Wednesday in Calgary, showing off his vision with a more than 100-foot diagonal pass that allowed Devin Shore to gain the zone with speed before scoring.
Video: CBJ@CGY: Shore nets first goal as a Blue Jacket
"I've noticed when I move my feet, it helps me get up in the rush and feel confident in making plays," he said. "Since my early days, defense has been the best part of my game, and finding those offensive holes, I've really learned over the past few years when is my best time to jump in and am getting more confident in that.
"At this level you have to choose your spots and you have to be ready to get back because that transition part is so big. You can make a mistake and it's in the back of your net so you have to be careful with it."
Peeke said he wasn't sure how his rookie season would go, but he's taken it day by day. When he was sent down to Cleveland to start the year, the hope was to play well enough that he'd get a chance with the Blue Jackets this year.
Now that he's received that opportunity at crunch time, the game is slowing down, and Peeke is starting to feel like he's showing he belongs.
"Each game brings its different challenges," he said. "I hadn't played against these teams before, so each team has different players you have to be aware of and stuff like that. Each game has challenges with positioning, reads, different types of forechecks. You kind of have to learn on the go when you're playing these teams for the first time. You do your video, but you just have to play hockey at the end of the day and that's what I'm trying to do."