Hearts secured a place in the UEFA Cup at least as they increased their lead over third-placed Rangers to five points with four games of the SPL campaign remaining.
The victory wasn’t achieved with the same aplomb that had seen the Gorgie men sweep aside most of their opponents in Edinburgh, however, with Valdas Ivanauskas’s side having to work hard for the three points against a fired-up Killie outfit managed by Jim Jefferies.
It had been the first time in this season that neither captain Steven Pressley nor Scotland colleague Andy Webster had featured at the heart of the defence. Pressley was ruled out with a back injury, but mystery surrounded the absence of Webster, who had turned down a new contract and he didn’t even make the bench.
But Czech star Rudi Skacel, who was unhappy to be rested the week previously at home to Dunfermline Athletic, returned to the midfield at the expense of Deividas Cesnauskis.
Hearts’ new defensive pairing of Christophe Berra and Jose Goncalves were lucky not to concede early on when young player of the year Steven Naismith nipped in between the duo to latch onto Allan Johnston’s lobbed cross and headed straight at Hearts goalkeeper Craig Gordon from ten yards
The home side responded and fit-again Edgaras Jankauskas, who had replaced Michal Pospisil up front, had a close-range drive brilliantly blocked by goalkeeper Alan Combe; the rebound fell to strike partner Roman Bednar who somehow managed to steer his shot over the bar from just six yards out.
The home side suffered a setback midway through the first half when centre-back Goncalves was forced off through injury and he was replaced by Ibrahim Tall – the Senegalese defender making his debut after an eight-month wait.
Bednar had the ball in the net, only for the goal to be chalked off for an infringement on visiting keeper Alan Combe as a Killie defence in which Gordon Greer had replaced Lindsay Wilson came under increasing pressure.
Paul Hartley then fired a free-kick from 25 yards wide of the target, before Skacel exploded a drive from distance just over.
Killie had rarely threatened, but they ended the first half on top as Danny Invincibile escaped the clutches of Berra before tumbling at the edge of the area as the midfielder bore down on Gordon. Referee Eddie Smith waved play on, leaving Killie boss Jefferies in a rage on the touchline. Steven Naismith then set himself up for a shot in a promising position, only to send it over the bar.
Hearts pressed after the break and Hartley had already fired over from 12 yards before breaking the deadlock.
Skacel picked up possession and moved forward with the ball leaving three Killie players trailing in his wake. A shimmy at the edge of the area drew a foul from James Fowler and this time Hartley made no mistake, curling in his shot in from over 20 yards to leave Combe helpless.
Gordon saved superbly to block clear a Naismith effort from point-blank range as Kille sought an equaliser.
But Berra made sure of the points three minutes from time when he headed home a Cesnauskis cross.
Hearts: Gordon, Neilson, Fyssas, Berra, Hartley, Goncalves, Mikoliunas, Aguiar, Jankauskas, Bednar, Skacel