Sportal.co.nz 29.Jun.2013Getty Images
The All Black star kicked eight goals from eight attempts and added a dazzling try to contribute 25 points as the Crusaders continued their charge towards the play-offs in front of a crowd of 18,463.
In contrast, Colin Slade kicked only one from four for the Highlanders and that summed up their night in a game when Ma'a Nonu was sent off for a tip tackle in the second half and Jarrad Hoeata sin-binned in the first.
It was a messy, disjointed display by the Highlanders but the Crusaders grew in confidence and continuity after a sluggish start to gain maximum points.
The Crusaders started the match in sixth place, desperate to consolidate their play-off chances, while the Highlanders were last despite beating the Blues in their last game.
The Crusaders had won 15 of the 23 matches against the Highlanders, including 24-8 in Christchurch earlier in the season.
Hosea Gear led the Highlanders out in his 100th Super match but the Crusaders struck immediately when Carter goaled a penalty from 45m.
The Highlanders made their intentions clear, turning down a comfortable penalty in search of tries. It worked, Ben Smith scoring after a lovely off-load by Tamati Ellison, with Colin Slade adding the conversion.
Highlanders blindside flanker Hoeata was yellow carded for a sin bin on an opponent after 18 minutes and lock Sam Whitelock was thrown out in the corner as the Crusaders attacked their 14-man opponents.
The Highlanders survived the assault but Slade missed two kickable penalties which would have given them breathing space.
But the Crusaders could not be denied, Carter making a break and captain George Whitelock finishing it off under the posts. Carter concerted and the Crusaders led 10-7 after 28 minutes.
The Highlanders had put in a lot of effort for minimal return and their vaunted front row could make no impression on the Crusaders' second-stringers, who packed the more solid scrum.
They increased their lead to 13-7 on the halftime hooter when Carter kicked his second penalty.
It was a half of lost opportunities for the Highlanders, the Crusaders gaining a six-point advantage despite seldom seeming to hit top gear. Both teams seemed rusty after the four-week break.
The Highlanders brought on Nonu and Aaron Smith to start the second spell but it almost led to immediate disaster.
Nonu's clearing kick from the kick-off was charged down and Colin Slade was adjudged by the TMO to just have got his hand to the ball before the flying Zac Guildford.
But the respite was temporary. Halfback Andy Ellis gathered in a pass from Tom Marshall, easily broke Tony Woodcock's tackle and scored the Crusaders' second try. Carter converted and the Crusaders led 20-7 two minutes into the spell.
The Highlanders were rewarded for a lengthy spell on attack when Gear was given the last pass and shoved off the desperate tackle of Israel Dagg to score his 37th Super try in the left corner.
But it all turned to custard the next minute when Nonu's inglorious cameo ended when he was sent off by referee Steve Walsh for a tip tackle on Tom Marshall after 17 minutes.
Carter kicked a 45m penalty following the infringement and the Crusaders led 23-12.
Crusaders' hooker Corey Flynn was no sooner on the field than he was yellow carded for a high tackle on Aaron Smith in another shabby episode in a stop-start game.
The Crusaders extended their lead to 26-12 with 16 minutes remaining when Carter kicked his fourth penalty.
It became 33-12 three minutes when Carter broke through some shoddy defence to score after strong leadup work by Marshall and Willie Heinz.
Telusa Veainu scored a late try. Which Carter converted, to complete a decisive win for the Crusaders.
Highlanders 12 (Ben Smith, Hosea Gear tries; Colin Slade con)
Crusaders 40 (George Whitelock, Andy Ellis, Dan Carter, Telusa Veainu tries; Carter 4 con,4 pen)
Half time: Crusaders 13-7