RALEIGH, N.C. — By their nature, losses are more damaging in a playoff hunt. If Thursday night’s 4-3 loss to the Hurricanes happened to the Rangers in October or January, the magnitude would be far less. There would be time to recover.

The stage was set for a celebration: It was former captain Eric Staal’s emotional return to his home territory for the first time since his Feb. 28 trade. And the Rangers could have locked down a postseason berth with a regulation or overtime win.

But the Blueshirts stumbled badly and came up empty, with a flat start and an awful finish jeopardizing their positioning for home-ice advantage in the playoffs. With five games to play, they fell into third place after the regulation loss.

The Penguins beat Nashville, 5-2, and have 96 points with five games left. The Rangers have 95 and the Islanders have 93 (with a game in hand).

“I haven’t said this very often, but we got outworked badly in the first period. We definitely weren’t prepared to compete,” coach Alain Vigneault said. “It’s very disappointing considering that with a win, it would have assured us a playoff spot. If there was one guy who had any distractions, it might have been Eric. Players have individual responsibilities to come here and execute and work hard, and we didn’t do it in the first 20 minutes.”

After two days off, the Rangers were sleepwalking early and the Hurricanes weren’t. They beat the visitors to loose pucks and fired the first six shots on Henrik Lundqvist before Cam Ward stopped Staal’s jam.

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During the ensuing TV timeout, Staal, who is second all-time in goals and assists for the Hurricanes’ franchise, was honored with a video tribute and a sustained standing ovation.

That didn’t spark the Rangers, who fell behind when Patrick Brown beat Lundqvist short side at 11:05 after Jeff Skinner’s slap shot caromed off the corner boards to him.

A Rangers power play at 12:03 produced one shot. After 20 minutes, the Blueshirts had been outshot 13-4.

The tide turned in the second as the Rangers scored three times. Mats Zuccarello took a feed from Derek Stepan and scored his 25th goal at 1:36. Rick Nash bulled through Brett Pesce and lifted a shot high far side at 5:03. After Justin Faulk’s point shot floated past a partially screened Lundqvist at 13:27 — on Carolina’s second shot of the period — Chris Kreider raced down the left side with a burst of speed, caught up to a rebound and restored the lead at 3-2.

“When you have a chance to clinch, we sat back in the third,” Dan Girardi said. “We should have kept in their face and stayed hard. It’s unfortunate. Equally troubling was the first period: We should have dictated our start, given what we had on the line. We should have been ready.”

Instead, the Rangers allowed two goals in the first half of the third. Kevin Klein and Stepan left Skinner alone for a tip that tied the score at 4:22 and Victor Rask put Carolina ahead on a rebound at 9:06. Vigneault challenged the goal, saying Justin Faulk didn’t keep the puck inside the blue line with his glove. But a review deemed that it was not conclusive enough to overturn.

“This is a game we should win,” said Lundqvist (24 saves). “I think you just move on right now.”