Heading into Saturday’s game against the New York Rangers at Madison Square Garden, the Penguins’ blue line was already without Brian Dumoulin, Marcus Pettersson, Mike Matheson and Juuso Riikola, all sidelined due to injuries.
And midway through the first period, top defenseman Kris Letang – who was averaging the third-most minutes in the entire NHL heading into the night – left the game with a lower-body injury and did not return.
Through that adversity, rookie defenseman Pierre-Olivier Joseph – playing in just his fifth career NHL game – stepped up and stood out. The 21-year-old finished with three primary assists, including the one on Sidney Crosby‘s overtime winner, in Pittsburgh’s 5-4 victory.
After the game, Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan couldn’t praise the young defenseman enough for his performance. The Penguins organization has been high on Joseph, originally drafted in the first round (23rd overall) by Arizona in 2017, ever since they acquired him from the Coyotes along with Alex Galchenyuk as part of the Phil Kessel trade in 2019 – and he’s showing everyone why.
“Tonight might have been his best game of the season for us when we needed it most, after going down to five so early in the game,” Sullivan said of Joseph. “We’re really excited about P.O. He’s a good player. We knew he was real close coming into this year, and he’s earning his time.
“We believe this kid is going to get better and better. He’s a real good player. He’s a great kid. He’s got an insatiable appetite for the game. We can see him improving right in front of our eyes with every minute that he plays out there.”
And speaking of every minute, Joseph finished with 25:58 minutes of ice time. He double-shifted with second-year defenseman John Marino, who finished with a team-high 26:03 minutes of ice time, in the overtime period before Crosby’s goal came at the 2:27 mark.
“For a young player in this league, that’s an exorbitant amount of minutes,” Sullivan said. “He handled it extremely well.”
Joseph has been so solid defensively since making his debut just last week, and that continued into tonight, as the 6-foot-2 blueliner continued using his long reach and good stick to make plays.
But what stood out the most about his performance tonight were his offensive instincts. Joseph used his strong skating and mobility to jump up into the play (and made the right decisions about when to do so), and then didn’t overthink it when he got to the opposing zone, putting the puck on net when he had the opportunity.
“We did a pretty good job out there, whoever it was on the ice,” Joseph said. “We battled it out and we just tried to keep it simple and good things happened.”
His first assist came early in the first period when Kasperi Kapanen collected the puck in the Penguins’ zone and headed up ice. With Jason Zucker providing the center drive, Joseph veered wide and drifted into open ice. Kapanen threaded him a pass, and Joseph found Zucker at the side of the net for a re-direct.
His second assist came in late in the first period after the Penguins won an offensive-zone faceoff. After Teddy Blueger went back and forth with Joseph a couple times, the defenseman settled the puck, lined up a point shot and Brandon Tanev deflected it past Rangers goalie Alexandar Georgiev.
His third assist came when he dished a pass off to Crosby at the bottom of the slot. The captain was able to get off a shot that beat Georgiev five-hole.
“I think he’s gaining confidence with every game,” Crosby said of Joseph. “And I think he’s kind of been thrown into situations based on our situation, so sometimes in scenarios like that you don’t think as much. You can just see with every game he’s gotten better and better. He had another great game tonight. He was good defensively and great offensively as well.”
As Letang said following Joseph’s debut, he looks like a 10-year veteran out there. But having a mindset that harkens back to what made him first fall in love with the game as a kid is what’s helping him have success.
“The message is pretty simple: just have fun out there,” Joseph said. “And that’s what we’ve been doing. It’s a great game, and I’m happy to be here.”