Waisake Naholo's double took the Highlanders to a 24-14 win over the Chiefs in Dunedin to reach the Super Rugby semi-finals.
While it was the winger who scored twice, Aaron Smith was the real hero for the Highlanders, creating both tries, while Lima Sopoaga chipped in with 14 points from the kicking tee.
As a result they will go on to a semi-final, either against the Waratahs or the Hurricanes, depending on the result of the second qualifier in Cape Town.
It was a deserved victory for the Highlanders, who played much more of the rugby, and despite Brodie Retallick's second-half try, the Chiefs were unable to really threaten.
Only Damian McKenzie at full-back posed real problems, with the combination of Sonny Bill Williams and Tim Nanai-Williams shut down in midfield.
The Highlanders made a relentless start, and almost scored from kick-off through Patrick Osborne. After a break down the right, Sopoaga's perfect cross-kick dropped for Osborne to cross on the left. It was a magnificent start but after consultation with the TMO, Naholo was deemed to have grazed the touchline in the build-up and the try was disallowed.
While the Chiefs had escaped on that occasion, they were quickly under pressure once more when Ben Smith sliced through, but although he lacked support, the visitors were penalised for slowing the ball down and Sopoaga knocked over the penalty to open the scoring.
It had been all Highlanders for the opening five minutes, but they failed to deal with the restart and conceded a penalty which Andrew Horrell slotted to level matters with virtually the Chiefs' first incursion into Highlanders territory.
The Highlanders came back again but it was the Chiefs who had the next chance to score, only for Horrell to miss successive penalties, the second from 35 metres in front.
The breakthrough came after 25 minutes, and it was the Highlanders who deservedly took the lead, just as the Chiefs seemed to be getting back into it. They took advantage of a scrum on halfway, with Aaron Smith and Naholo combining brilliantly with some quick interplay to send the winger over in the corner.
Sopoaga couldn't convert, and the Chiefs were able to cut the deficit to two thanks to a second Horrell penalty when Aaron Smith was penalised for not releasing the tackled player in front of the posts.
And the Chiefs moved in front with the final kick of the half when Nasi Manu jumped offside at a ruck, Horrell slotting the simple penalty to make it 9-8.
It was a touch harsh on the Highlanders, who had dominated much of the half, but they didn't have to wait long to go back in front after the break.
After the Chiefs had just managed to hold out following a Ben Smith break, the Highlanders produced a powerful scrum, and off the back of it, Aaron Smith darted to the right, drawing in two men to send Naholo over for his second.
This time Sopoaga converted from the touchline, and the Highlanders moved ahead 15-9.
The Chiefs had shown great discipline in the first half, seemingly solving their biggest problem for much of the season, but they lost their composure just before the hour when Brad Weber gave away a stupid penalty, allowing Sopoaga to add three more points.
The game looked to be slipping away from the Chiefs and they didn't help themselves when a quick restart went straight out. The Highlanders wasted that opportunity by jumping offside at the next scrum.
The Chiefs kicked to the corner and then went through the forwards with a long series of pick-and-goes before Retallick showed his power to force his way over.
Horrell couldn't convert and the Chiefs then handed back three easy points when Ben Tameifuna conceded a mindless penalty for handling in the ruck despite being warned by referee Chris Pollock. Sopoaga slotted it to push the lead back to seven, 21-14.
The Chiefs came back into Highlanders territory, but the hosts had more of the ball, and as a result they were able to hold out, with Sopoaga earning a vital penalty in his own 22 to clear the danger, before a penalty against Sam Cane in the other 22 allowed Sopoaga to seal the win at the death.
For the Highlanders:
Tries: Naholo 2
Pens: Sopoaga 4
For the Chiefs:
Pens: Horrell 3
Highlanders: 15 Ben Smith (c), 14 Waisake Naholo, 13 Malakai Fekitoa, 12 Richard Buckman, 11 Patrick Osborne, 10 Lima Sopoaga, 9 Aaron Smith, 8 Nasi Manu (c), 7 Dan Pryor, 6 Elliot Dixon, 5 Mark Reddish, 4 Alex Ainley, 3 Josh Hohneck, 2 Liam Coltman, 1 Brendon Edmonds.
Replacements: 16 Ash Dixon, 17 Daniel Lienert-Brown, 18 Ross Geldenhuys, 19 Joe Latta, 20 Gareth Evans, 21 Fumiaki Tanaka, 22 Marty Banks, 23 Shaun Treeby.
Chiefs: 15 Damian McKenzie, 14 Bryce Heem, 13 Tim Nanai-Williams, 12 Sonny Bill Williams, 11 James Lowe, 10 Andrew Horrell, 9 Brad Weber, 8 Liam Messam (c), 7 Sam Cane, 6 Michael Fitzgerald, 5 Brodie Retallick, 4 Matt Symons, 3 Ben Tameifuna, 2 Hika Elliot, 1 Pauliasi Manu.
Replacements: 16 Quentin MacDonald, 17 Siate Tokolahi, 18 Jamie Mackintosh, 19 Mitchell Crosswell, 20 Michael Leitch, 21 Kayne Hammington, 22 Marty McKenzie, 23 Seta Tamanivalu.
Venue: Forsyth Barr Stadium, Dunedin
Referee: Chris Pollock
Assistant referees: Nick Briant, Mike Fraser
TMO: Aaron Paterson