Hylton on target again as Luton defeat Dale
League One: Luton Town 2 Rochdale 0
Striker Danny Hylton scored his first goal since October as the Hatters picked up another crucial three points in their quest for promotion against a dogged Rochdale side at Kenilworth Road this afternoon.
After going over four months and 16 appearances without scoring, it was Hylton who broke the deadlock on 59 minutes, with James Collins' 20th of the season in stoppage time, under the watchful eye of Ireland manager Mick McCarthy, clinching the victory.
Home boss Mick Harford had made one change to face struggling Dale, who had lost eight out of 10 leading into the game, Elliot Lee in for his first start since mid-January, replacing George Moncur, who dropped to the bench, with Luke Berry among the substitutes, George Thorne missing out.
Town went into the game in the knowledge that second placed Barnsley had won 3-0 at Southend United during the early kick-off, despite playing the entire second half with 10 men, meaning their lead at the top had been cut to two points.
Collins almost gave McCarthy an example of his clinical finishing when Pelly-Ruddock Mpanzu's backheel to Elliot Lee fell into his path on five minutes, his effort deflected inches wide.
Dale, who had only drawn two blanks on their travels this season, served notice of their intentions when Matt Done was slipped through the middle of a gaping hole in Town's defence, but couldn't keep his footing when rounding James Shea, on his 50th appearance, and the chance went begging.
Hylton then spurned a great opportunity on 16 minutes, as doing well to get on the end of Mpanzu's first time cross from the left, leaning back, he fired over.
Luton started to pick up the tempo, Hylton winning a free kick from chasing a lost cause on the left, and when it was headed out, Alan McCormack's volley whistled just wide of the upright.
Visiting keeper Andy Lonergan was forced into his first save on 40 minutes, as Town worked a free kick from deep quickly and Collins' drive was parried by the on-loan Middlesbrough stopper, Lee unable to turn the rebound home.
Shinnie then found the run of Mpanzu who broke into the area, only for the Scottish midfielder to take charge, Lonergan repelling with his legs.
After the break, Town should have been ahead with their first attack, Shinnie cleverly playing in Mpanzu who beat the offside trap, but not the outstretched arm of the Lonergan.
Ethan Hamilton's tame effort was easy for Shea, with Town then having the chance of the game on 50 minutes, Stacey racing clear from half way, released by Shinnie's wonderful pass.
Bearing down on Lonergan however, he delayed his shot just enough for Joe Bunney to get back and make a superb sliding challenge to prevent what looked a certain goal.
Dale always carried a threat, top scorer Henderson's lob going all wrong when looking to beat the out of position Shea.
Luton finally had the goal that the near enough 10,000 Hatters fans in attendance craved on 59 minutes, when Hylton broke his long goalscoring drought at a vital time.
Stacey was the architect, beating two men on the right flank, with Hylton's deflection drawing a superb reaction save from Longergan.
Lee's follow up header hit the bar, the ball dropping for Hylton to head home and score for the first time since October 23, to the genuine delight of the striker and his team-mates too.
Hatters almost had an immediate second as Hylton dug out a searching cross from the left and Collins' downward header was clawed behind by the increasingly overworked Lonergan.
Mpanzu was replaced by Dan Potts with a quarter of an hour to go, ending his ever-present run in the league for Town, while Collins dragged wide with a pass to Lee the better option.
Sub Zach Clough had an effort straight at Shea from 20 yards, but Luton still hunted for a clinching second, Lee setting off and seeing his 25 yarder flick off a defender, turned behind by the stretching Lonergan.
Shinnie released Stacey once more with superb pass and the defender set off on an even better run, his low delivery picking out substitute Kazenga LuaLua, who was crowded out.
Dale's task became even harder with five minutes to go, reduced to 10 men, on-loan Manchester United midfielder Ethan Hamilton, who had been cautioned just 31 seconds into the game, receiving his yellow for a late challenge on Shinnie.
With time running out, Luton did give themselves some breathing space as after LuaLua won a number of free kicks deep in Dale territory, he then wriggled away on the byline and teed up Collins who fairly slammed home on his left foot.
Victories for Sunderland and Portsmouth made the triumph even more important, with the top of League Two staying exactly as it was, Luton now stretching their record breaking unbeaten run to 22 games, with just 11 fixtures remaining.
Hatters: James Shea, Jack Stacey, James Justin, Matty Pearson, Sonny Bradley (C), Alan McCormack, Pelly-Ruddock Mpanzu (Dan Potts 74), Andrew Shinnie, Elliot Lee (Kazenga LuaLua 80), James Collins, Kazenga, Danny Hylton (Luke Berry 89).
Subs not used: Harry Isted, Jason Cummings, Alan Sheehan, George Moncur.
Dale: Andy Lonergan, Jim McNulty, Ryan Delaney, Stephen Dooley, MJ Williams, Callum Camps, Matt Done (Calvin Andrew 63), Bradden Inman, Ethan Hamilton, Joe Bunney (Jordan Williams 63), Ian Henderson (C, Zach Clough 71).
Subs not used: Rory Holden, Daniel Adshead, Brad Wade, Luke Matheson.
Booked: Hamilton 1, Mpanzu 24, Lonergan 45, Shinnie 65, MJ Williams 70.
Sent off: Hamilton 85.
Referee: Lee Swabey.
Attendance: 9,905 (199 Dale).