A dark day for the franchise ended on a bright note when the Hurricanes clinched top spot for the first time in Super Rugby history.
With the loss of Jerry Collins coming a couple of hours before kickoff, the Hurricanes donned black armbands and observed a minute's silence before playing inspired rugby to build an insurmountable lead atop the competition standings.
It would have required an improbable series of results to rob the Hurricanes of the No1 ranking in the final week, and that denouement became even less likely as soon as the passes start sticking on at McLean Park.
The Hurricanes proceeded to show just why they will be regarded as favourites to claim their maiden Super Rugby crown, scoring eight tries to book a week off and seal a home semifinal.
On tonight's form, they will be tough to top no matter who comes calling to Westpac Stadium. But if it's the Highlanders - a distinct possibility as the southern side are assured of a playoff place - the Hurricanes will encounter a tougher test than what they faced in Napier.
Shorn of their All Black trio, the Highlanders' defence was woeful all evening. While the Hurricanes, now the competition's top scorers, have run several sides ragged this season, they have rarely received such a helping hand from the opposition.
The Highlanders appeared to treat tackling as optional, with the absence of Ben Smith, Malakai Fekitoa and Aaron Smith seemingly depriving their teammates of leadership and organisation when without the ball.
But it still took a quality attack to take advantage of that weakness and, for the Hurricanes, that quality was never in doubt. The home side ran up their highest score of the season, sealing the bonus point in the first half, while several members of their star-studded backline added a few more sparkling raids to their considerable collections.
The backs took turns at one-upping one another, with Nehe Milner-Skudder kicking off the carnage with a step and an offload that illustrated why the Manawatu flyer has attracted calls for higher honours. James Marshall's bust for the second try was even better - if you were squinting and failed to see several Highlanders drop off straightforward tackles - and both men finished with more than 100 metres running.
Beauden Barrett ran with encouraging freedom in his return from injury, while TJ Perenara and Ma'a Nonu both bagged doubles. All told, the attacking display was eye-watering and could have been even more crushing had the odd miracle pass come off, especially during an electric opening half with ball in hand.
Whether through a trademark counter attack or a clinical finish following a period of pressure at the right end of the field, the Hurricanes were irrepressible. There were a couple of blemishes, if they choose to play perfectionist when reviewing footage that often resembled one long highlight reel.
Chris Boyd would have ben disappointed with the way the Highlanders easily wrestled away the initiative midway through the first half, when a Ryan Tongia-inspired double strike briefly made it a fair fight. And the lineout, after a horror show in last week's loss against the Crusaders, again lacked composure.
But even those nits are picked, if will be hard to deny the Hurricanes their status as front-runners for the title heading into the finals.
Hurricanes 56 (Thompson, Marshall, Perenara 2, Coles, Savea, Nonu 2 tries; Marshall 2 pens, 5 cons)
Highlanders 20 (Tongia, Sopoaga, Banks tries; Sopoaga dg, con)