The Highlanders secured their third straight Super Rugby victory over the Hurricanes when they held on to win 16-18 in Wellington on Friday.
The result drops the Hurricanes out of the top six and the Highlanders provisionally move up to fourth in the overall Super Rugby standings.
The Hurricanes scored the only try of the match and the result came down to kicks. Highlanders first-five Hayden Parker kicked five penalties and a drop goal which proved to be the match winner.
Parker kicked the dropped goal from close range in the 64th minute which put the Highlanders into the lead.
Hurricanes fullback Andre Taylor had two opportunities to put his team ahead with penalty kicks but he missed both attempts.
Hurricanes scrumhalf TJ Perenara scored the only try in the 37th minute and then had a second try, which was a potential match-winner, disallowed due to obstruction five minutes from fulltime.
The victory lifts the Highlanders into second place in the New Zealand conference and into fourth place overall at the start of the tournament's 14th round.
They came into the match in seventh place, just below the sixth-place Hurricanes with both teams equal on 30 championships points.
The win allowed them to leapfrog the Hurricanes and, significantly, they have a match in hand as the regular season nears its end.
The Highlanders have a tough run toward the playoffs with matches remaining against the seven-time champion Crusaders, who they must play twice, the defending champion Chiefs, the 2011 champion Reds and the Waratahs.
The Hurricanes have one match fewer to come because of a bye in the last round and must play the Chiefs twice, the Blues and the Crusaders in an equally difficult finish to the season.
Their loss on Friday in a match they were widely expected to win was severely damaging to their playoffs hopes.
The Hurricanes had the better of a close first half and, with Perenara's try, took a 13-9 lead to halftime. They tried to play their traditional running game but the Highlanders were effective in slowing their ball at the breakdown and shutting down their options out wide.
Perenara's try was contentious. He skirted a scrum five meters from the Highlanders line, reached over when the ball emerged and batted it out of the hands of Aaron Smith, then recovered the loose ball to score.
Whether he should have been allowed to lean over a scrum was doubtful but he showed initiative in creating the chance.
All Blacks flyhalf Beaden Barrett kicked two early penalties for the Hurricanes but he was forced to give up the goal-kicking after an apparent leg injury midway through the first half. He finally left the field with 20 minutes remaining.
In his absence, fullback Andre Taylor converted Perenara's try and added a penalty, then missed two penalties, including a close-range effort in the 70th minute which was pivotal.
Parker landed five consecutive penalties for the Highlanders and made the shrewd decision to take a dropped goal chance from broken play in the 64th minute, giving his team their final 18-16 lead.
Perenara dived through a ruck for what might have been the winning try in the 75th minute but his effort was disallowed by the television match official, who ruled an obstruction on Aaron Smith.
Final Score Hurricanes 16 (13) Highlanders 18 (9)
Tries - T.J.Perenara
Pen - B.Barrett 2, A.Taylor
Con - A.Taylor
Pen - H.Parker 5
Drop - H.Parker
Referee: Garratt Williamson
Assistant Ref 1: Jaco Peyper
Assistant Ref 2: Kane McBride
TMO: Aaron Peterson
1. Ben Franks,2. Motu Matu'u,3. Jeffery Toomaga-Allen,4. Jeremy Thrush,5. James Broadhurst,6. Faifili Levave,7. Jack Lam,8. Victor Vito,9. TJ Perenara,10. Beauden Barrett,11. Julian Savea,12. Tim Bateman,13. Conrad Smith (c),14. Cory Jane,15. Andre Taylor
Replacements :16. Ash Dixon,17. Chris Eves,18. Reggie Goodes,19. Blade Thomson,20. Ardie Savea,21. Brad Shields,22. Chris Smylie,23. Alapati Leiua
1 . Kane Hames, 2 . Liam Coltman, 3 . Ma’afu Fia, 4 . Jarrad Hoeata , 5 . Joe Wheeler, 6 . Elliot Dixon, 7 . Shane Christie, 8 . Nasi Manu (co.captain) , 9 . Aaron Smith , 10 . Hayden Parker , 11 . Jason Emery, 12 . Shaun Treeby, 13 . Malakai Fekitoa, 14 . Richard Buckman , 15 . Ben Smith (co.captain)
Replacements : 16 . Ged Robinson, 17 . Matias Diaz, 18 . Aki Seuli, 19 . Tom Franklin, 20 . Gareth Evans, 21 . Fumiaki Tanaka, 22 . Trent Renata, 23 . Phil Burleigh