Sykora’s 25th goal of the season, the Penguins fifth goal of the game, turned out to be the deciding factor. Sykora scored for the first time in nine games, and it turned out to be his 10th game-winning goal of the season.
The Penguins jumped out to a 1-0 lead five minutes into the second period on a backhanded goal by Ruslan Fedotenko.
Sydney Crosby then made it 2-0 10:08 in, and then 3-0 a minute later.
Crosby broke the 100-point mark for the third time in four seasons. Crosby and teammate Evgeni Malkin, who is the NHL leader in points with 110, are the first pair of Penguin teammates to eclipse the 100-point mark in the same season since Mario Lemieux (161) and Jaromir Jagr (149) in the 1995-96 season.
Malkin, who assisted on both Crosby goals, remains three points ahead of Alexander Ovechkin for the NHL lead.
Matt Cooke made it 4-0 1:08 into the third period, and the game was all but over.
Tampa Bay, however, would not be deterred.
The Lightning scored three goals in the next five minutes to cut Pittsburgh’s lead to 4-3; Jeff Halpern, Martin St. Louis, and Paul Szczechura scored for Tampa Bay.
Two minutes after Szczechura’s goal, Sykora blasted a rebound past Lightning goalie Karri Ramo.
It appeared as though Penguin winger Ruslan Fedotenko made contact with the Lightning goalie, but the referees saw otherwise. Not even Lightning interim coach Rich Tocchet could sway the officials.
"The ref blew it. Plain and simple," Tocchet said. "We battled hard. We just needed a fighting chance there."
The goal put the Penguins ahead 5-3, and despite a goal by Jeff Halpern that cut into the Pens lead making it 5-4 with 41 seconds to play, Tampa Bay would fall short as Jordan Staal buried an empty-netter 30 seconds later to clinch a playoff birth for Pittsburgh.
"I think we're all allowed to smile tonight," Penguins interim coach Dan Bylsma said.
The Penguins, who improved to 16-3-4 under Bylsma, aren’t the only team smiling this evening.
With the win, the Penguins clinch no worse than the seventh spot in the Eastern Conference playoff race, and the fans of Boston could not be happier; The Bruins have clinched the top seed in the Eastern Conference.
If Florida and New York were to win their remaining three games, neither would overtake the Pens.
Florida can finish with no more than 42 wins, which would fall one short of Pittsburgh’s 43. Total victories is the first tiebreaker. The second tiebreaker, head-to-head competition, is where the Penguins would have the edge over the Rangers. Pittsburgh took eight points out of the season series, and the Rangers took six.
Pittsburgh, which currently sits in sixth place, is playing the best hockey of anyone in the NHL. They fell off their game a little in the third period, and this didn’t set well with their team captain.
"We got away from our game and I think we realized pretty quickly no matter who we play against, if we're not playing the right way, we can be beat pretty easily," said Crosby, who was on the ice for all four Tampa Bay goals and wound up minus-4 for the game. "I think we let up. We had a few big mistakes."
Pittsburgh knows that if they stay on their game, they are one of, if not the, most talented team in the NHL. Despite losing focus in the third period, the Penguins showed the poise of a champion. They answered the Lightning’s furious comeback with a goal of their own that closed the door on any chance Tampa Bay had.
The Penguins have been beating teams in a lot of ways, but by persevering in the face of adversity they made a strong statement that they will not be rattled in their playoff push.
Pittsburgh will be smiling all night after clinching a playoff spot, chances are that the fans in Boston will be smiling too.