Hawthorn skipper Luke Hodge kicked five goals in a triumphant return from a knee injury as the premiership favourites demoralised Essendon with a 94-point win on Friday night.
Playing his first AFL game since May 5, Hodge had 16 possessions and six marks after being sent forward by coach Alastair Clarkson, who subbed his versatile captain off at three-quarter time.
The Hawks used dazzling foot skills to score their eighth successive victory and improved their season's record to 13-4 with their 27.18 (180) to 12.14 (86) win at Etihad Stadium.
Hawthorn's win gives them top spot after the opening night of round 18.
Small forward Cyril Rioli, with 21 disposals, two goals, nine tackles and seven clearances, was in stunning form for the Hawks in his 100th game.
Essendon suffered their third loss by more than 10 goals in their past four matches and slumped to an 11-6 record.
Half-back Matthew Suckling kicked four goals while Jack Gunston and Jarryd Roughead scored three goals each for the Hawks while big Scott Gumbleton booted four for the Bombers.
Sam Mitchell and Brendan Whitecross were among Hawthorn's many good contributors while skipper Jobe Watson was a star in midfield for the Bombers.
The Hawks had winners all over the ground and built on an eight-goal first term with another six majors in the second quarter to lead 14.9 (93) to 3.7 (25) at halftime.
Essendon's problems with their kick-ins reached a low point when Courtenay Dempsey overstepped the line and the Hawks scored a goal through Roughead from the bounce in the second quarter.
Gumbleton kicked three of Essendon's six goals in the third term, but the Hawks added another six of their own including three to Hodge to lead by 70 points at three-quarter time.
Clarkson's emphasis on percentage was evident in the final term as the Hawks piled on another seven goals to Essendon's three.
Both sides made late changes to their selected sides.
Hawthorn gave ruckman Max Bailey his first game of the season and rested David Hale, while the Bombers replaced Stewart Crameri and Cale Hooker with Cory Dell'Olio and debutant teenager Elliott Kavanagh.
Clarkson said Hodge's successful return to the top level was the highlight of the night for the Hawks.
"He's the captain of our club and he has been sorely missed throughout the course of the year," Clarkson said of Hodge, who has played only three games in 2012.
"Hopefully over the next three to four weeks he can get some genuine match condition so he can run games out well.
"It was beyond our wildest dreams that he'd kick five goals in his return game. It panned out nicely for us."
Hird said he was terribly disappointed with the result.
"The way we played in that first half was very ordinary. Hawthorn are obviously a very good team and made us look second-rate," Hird said.
Clarkson said the Bombers had excuses, with first-choice forwards Michael Hurley, Crameri and Paddy Ryder all unavailable because of injuries.