Anthony Stokes silenced his critics with a glory double to earn Hibs a quick-fire return to Hampden for a William Hill Scottish Cup semi-final against Dundee United.
Stokes ended a seven-game goal drought by striking twice in four first-half minutes but Alan Stubbs’ side had to live on their nerves after Iain Vigurs pulled one back for holders Inverness Caley.
In a dramatic finale, the Easter Road side lost goalkeeper Mark Oxley to injury leaving Otso Virtanen to make his debut in a match which was extended by seven additional minutes during which Liam Henderson and Stokes went close to adding a killer third as Hibs hit Caley on the break.
But the victory came at a price, Oxley picking up a booking to add to the yellow card shown to him earlier in the competition which means he’ll miss the semi-final on April 16.
Stubbs made just one change to the side which started the League Cup final, James Keatings, scorer of Hibs’ goal in the 1-1 draw with Caley at Easter Road, coming in for Kevin Thomson to play at the tip of a midfield diamond anchored by Marvin Bartley.
Up front, Stubbs, as promised, kept faith with strikers Jason Cummings and Stokes, firm in his belief that a partnership which had yet to catch fire would do so sooner rather than later.
Caley had Gary Warren and Carl Tremarco – absentees in Edinburgh through suspension – back but Greg Tansey sat out this replay having picked up a one-match ban while Andrea Mbuyi-Mutombo, scorer of their equaliser ten days ago, was ill.
There was pressure on both sides going into the match, Caley as holders doing so having not won in six outings in slipping into the lower half of the Premiership table, while Hibs, in addition to the disappointment of losing to Ross County, hadn’t tasted victory in their last five games.
A concern for Stubbs would have been the sheer size of many of John Hughes’ players – eight of them apparently standing 6ft plus – an obvious threat when it came to corners and free-kicks around the danger area while well capable of dealing with anything that came at them in the air defensively.
As a consequence, there were more than a few catch weight contests all around the pitch although McGregor set his stall out early, the Hibs centre half determined to win his aerial duels and doing so with obvious relish.
Given the recent form of both sides, at least in terms of results, it was of little surprise that the early exchanges were scrappy, neither set of players able to settle into their normal passing game although, after a promising opening from Caley, Hibs did edge it, Stokes firing one shot into the side-netting and Cummings scuffing another wide while Liam Fontaine powered a header from a Henderson corner over.
Even so, there was little sign of a goal coming as both teams tended to cancel each other out until Lewis Stevenson delivered a high, hanging cross from the left. Rather than look to contest it in the air, Stokes cleverly dropped off a couple of yards and was perfectly placed when the Caley defence missed it to take a touch and put it back across goalkeeper Owain Fon Williams and into the far corner of the net.
It was the first goal scored when both the Republic of Ireland hitman and Cummings had been on the field together – but it didn’t take long for a second to arrive, again courtesy of the on-loan Celtic player.
Danny Devine made a horrible mistake to gift possession to Henderson, who rolled the ball inside for Cummings. His first-time shot was well saved low to his right by Fon Williams but there was Stokes to hammer the rebound into the empty net.
They were Stokes first goals since he scored the winner against Morton at Cappielow on February 2, bringing a barren run of seven games to an end and fully vindicating his manager’s determination to stick with him, claiming it was only a matter of time before the 27-year-old would be back on song.
Caley had headed up the tunnel to a chorus of boos but Carl Tremarco should have hauled them back into the match three minutes after the interval, the left back finding himself all alone at the back post as Vigurs flicked on Josh Meekings’ cross. But he got under the ball and somehow managed to put it over the bar from only a few yards out.
Yogi Hughes had obviously had words at half-time and Vigurs tried his luck from range, but Hibs goalkeeper Oxley was safely behind his shot with Hibs realising they would have to ride out an early second-half storm.
A needless push by Fontaine on former Hibs kid Lewis Horner a yard outside his own penalty area presented Vigurs with the opportunity to whip the ball in but Oxley was equal to it, throwing himself across to get a strong punch away.
The danger for Hibs would be in dropping too deep to cope with the pressure, but Bartley earned his side a little respite with a surging 50-yard burst to feed Stokes whose low shot was only inches away from the midfielder’s boot as he continued his run into the Caley penalty area.
And Stokes almost wrapped it up for Hibs, a wonderful display of tight control seeing him prod a delightful ball for John McGinn, who found the angle just too tight to beat Fon Williams.
Caley were becoming ever more desperate with every passing minute, realising their grip on the Scottish Cup was rapidly loosening, but they were thrown a lifeline with 13 minutes remaining, a cross from the left nodded back across goal where Vigurs was lurking to hammer home.
And Caley went close to claiming an equaliser two minutes later, Richie Foran firing in a low ball which Liam Hughes somehow turned over from almost under the cross bar, Oxley nursing his left arm having gone down at the forward’s feet and needing a second bout of treatment a few minutes later.
The concern was such that Virtanen, yet to make an appearance for Hibs, had his tracksuit off and, after Oxley was clattered by Danny Williams and booked for timewasting – a yellow card that means he will miss the semi-final, the big Finn replaced the Yorkshireman for the final stages.
Fourth official Nick Walsh holding aloft his board to indicate seven additional minutes didn’t help the nerves of the travelling fans nor did the sight of Virtanen flapping at a cross.
But two terrific saves from Fon Williams, tipping over a Henderson shot and then blocking a Stokes effort as Hibs hit on the break, kept Caley’s hopes alive for a few more minutes before a final blast of Finnie’s whistle brought blessed relief for the men in green and white.
Inverness Caledonian Thistle: Fon Williams, Tremarco (Polworth 73), Warren, Meekings, Draper, Foran, Devine, Wedderburn (D Williams 62), Horner (Storey 62), Hughes, Vigurs. Subs: Esson, R Williams, Roberts.
Hibs: Oxley (Virtanen 87), Gray, McGregor, Fontaine, Stevenson, Bartley, McGinn, Henderson, Keatings (Gunnarsson 79), Cummings, Stokes. Subs: El Alagui, Handling, Boyle, Dagnall, Thomson.