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 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 the Feb. 28 trade. The Blueshirts 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 placing their positioning for home-ice advantage in the playoffs in jeopardy 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, beating the visitors to loose pucks and firing the first six shots on Henrik Lundqvist, before Staal’s jam that Cam Ward stopped. 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 Jeff Skinner’s slap shot caromed off the corner boards to Patrick Brown, who beat Lundqvist short side at 11:05. A Rangers power play at 12:03 produced one shot. After 20 minutes, the Blueshirts had been outshot 13-4.

In the second, the tide turned, as the Rangers scored three times. Mats Zuccarello took a feed from Derek Stepan at 1:36, and potted his 25th goal. 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, only the ’Canes second shot of the period at 13:27, 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,” said Dan Girardi. “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 in the first half of the final period, with Kevin Klein and Stepan leaving Skinner alone for a tip that tied that game at 4:22. At 9:06, Victor Rask put Carolina ahead on a rebound, but Vigneault challenged the goal, claiming defenseman 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, who made 24 saves. “I think you just move on right now.”