The Town’s six-match unbeaten came to abrupt end as they were soundly beaten by promotion rivals Newport County.
Former Hatter Aaron O’Connor had the hosts ahead on 13 minutes before Andre Gray stole an equaliser five minutes later.
County struck twice before half-time to give them a 3-1 lead before half-time substitute Jon Shaw got the Town back in it just after the hour mark.
But the hosts ensured they ended the evening top of the table as two goals in three minutes from Andy Sandell and Christian Jolley killed off the Town’s chances of earning a point.
The Town begun showing two changes to the side that beat Alfreton at the weekend. With Jonathan Smith recalled by parent club York City, Arnaud Mendy returned in central midfield and Dean Beckwith partnered Simon Ainge at centre-back with Janos Kovacs serving a one-match ban.
On a freezing night in front of the television cameras the Hatters began on the front foot, JJ O’Donnell slicing over 75 seconds into proceedings from the edge of the area. Two minutes later Jake Howells’ effort from distance was also off target.
It was cagey stuff from both sides on a treacherous surface and on seven minutes an O’Donnell free-kick hit the Newport wall. O’Donnell then thundered a shot narrowly over the crossbar on nine minutes following a fine flowing Town move engineered by lovely play from Alex Lawless.
But, after those early half-chances for the Town, it was County that took the lead. Lee Evans’ free-kick from the left almost crept home – Mark Tyler turning a certain goal behind for a corner. The danger was only briefly evaded, however, when, from the resultant corner from Andy Sandell, O’Connor rose unchallenged to nod past Tyler.
Hurt by going behind, the Town responded. Lawless almost grabbed a chance to pull the trigger when first to a deep O’Donnell cross, before Lawless then slipped Gray in for a shot which was blocked on 15 minutes.
However, the Hatters did get on level terms on 17 minutes in bizarre circumstances. Ishmail Yakubu’s wayward back header didn’t seem at first to pose a problem to goalkeeper Julian. But he let the ball slip inexplicably from his grasp allowing Gray to steal the ball and guide home the equaliser.
County almost retook the lead a minute later when another Sandell corner was headed wide by Yakubu at the back post.
Having got themselves level though the Town allowed Exiles to go 2-1 when a defence splitting pass found Jolley free down the right to cut inside, draw out Tyler and clip a cool finish into the back of the net.
County were now bossing things as the Hatters struggled to carve out chances at the other end – and they almost fell further behind on 35 minutes when a fantastic effort from Jolley from outside the box came back off the crossbar with Tyler beaten. Ainge then came to the Hatters’ rescue by blocking O’Connor’s follow-up with the goal gaping.
As County continued to press as half-time approach the Town’s night took an ever greater turn for the worse on 39 minutes when Henry’s header was misjudged by Tyler and the ball bounced in off the post to give the hosts a two-goal cushion.
It was almost four on the stroke of half-time when O’Connor found space in the Town penalty area but dragged his left-foot shot across goal and wide of Tyler’s goal.
Needing to over-turn the deficit, Buckle introduced Shaw at half-time for Mendy, which meant a change of shape and a three-pronged attack for the Town.
Shaw immediately set-up Scott Rendell to win a corner in the second minute of the second half from which the Town appealed in vain for handball – only for their claims to be waved away by referee Whitton. Television replays later showed it did strike a County hand.
The Town were having more of the ball, and forced a series of corners inside the opening 15 minutes of the second period. Shaw was inches away from meeting one before Howells saw a goal chalked off after the referee had spotted a foul in the penalty area.
However, as the Hatters continued to search for a route back into the game they found one on 61 minutes, moments after Stuart Fleetwood was thrown on for O’Donnell. Lawless’ pass found Henry down the right and his cross was perfect for Shaw to volley home to reduce arrears.
Back in the game and with County quiet, the Town then shot themselves in the foot on three minutes after they’d got one back when Sandell had time and space to tip-toe through the defence and blast high into the roof of the net giving Tyler no chance.
That made it four and two minutes later the Hatters’ hopes of earning a point were well and truly quashed when Jolley grabbed his second and County’s fifth when he charged down an attempted clearance from Lathaniel Rowe-Turner and finished well.
County continued to push forward looking for a sixth goal but the Town came close to reduce arrears again inside the last 15 minutes but both Gray and Fleetwood could not turn the ball home inside the six-yard box.
Both sides forced half chances as time ticked down but, after four added injury-time minutes, the Town were finally put out of their misery and left to reflect on a heavy defeat to one of the challengers for promotion.