NEW YORK – Tuesday night’s 4-2 Kings’ win over the Rangers was Exhibit A why the rest of the league is hoping and praying the defending Stanley Cup champions will miss the playoffs when the regular season ends in 18 days.

It’s a sign of respect towards the Kings (36-23-14), who moved into a virtual tie with the Calgary Flames for the third and final playoff spot out of the Pacific Division. Calgary owns the first tiebreaker, regulation/overtime wins. The Kings are two points behind the second wild card spot in the West, currently held by the upstart Winnipeg Jets.

“[We] controlled the game and the zone time,” said Kings coach Darryl Sutter. “We’re really good at that, it’s what our team does. We spend time with the puck and we spend time in the offensive zone. We don’t always, and tonight we did.”

“It’s really difficult to win hockey games in this league, especially down the stretch when teams are fighting to get into the playoffs,” said Rangers forward Derek Stepan. “You have to be ready to compete at a high level. Tonight, we had a lot of things go wrong for us.”

After the Rangers (46-19-7) scored the game’s opening goal 51 seconds in, they controlled play through the opening ten minutes before Los Angeles, who has just nine games remaining to save their season, scored four unanswered goals while dominating the rest of the game.

“We knew that we were going to come out against a desperate team tonight,” said goaltender Cam Talbot (31 saves). “They’re fighting for their playoff lives over there. We jumped on them quick, but I think after that they kind of turned the table on us.”

“I know that coming into this game everybody knew what we were up against and that it was going to take a real strong effort and our ‘A’ game,” said Rangers coach Alain Vigneault. “We didn’t have that tonight. I can’t explain why. We just know we have to move on to the next game.”

Not much damage was done to the Rangers’ playoff hopes. Their magic number to clinch a spot remains four, meaning they could clinch as soon as Saturday against the ninth-place Bruins. They have at least one game-in-hand on the other teams they’re battling with for the Presidents’ Trophy, and are one point behind the Canadiens in that race.

It was just the second regulation loss all year for the Rangers against the hyper-competitive Pacific Division, they fell to 11-2-1. They’re 16-5-5 against the Western Conference this season.

“This is an example of what happens when we’re not executing, mentally sharp, preparing the way and playing the way we need to and are capable of,” said Rangers captain Ryan McDonagh. “Obviously they had a lot of good looks throughout the whole game. You can’t expect your goalie to stop every puck.”

The Rangers, who got a late third period goal by Kevin Hayes, avoided losing by at least three goals, something they’ve done just eight times all season.

“It’s tough to question the effort in this room,” said Stepan of the Rangers, who heard some intermittent boo-birds from the restless fans at the Garden. “I know we have a lot of guys that work extremely hard, and I think we’re a really hard-working team. I think maybe we didn’t have our legs, but I know that I’m not going to question a single guy in here about an effort out there.”

Lundqvist skates with teammates for first time

Perhaps the biggest news to come out of Madison Square Garden on Tuesday skated onto the ice over eight hours before the puck dropped in front of 18,006.

Goaltender Henrik Lundqvist, out since Feb. 2 with a blood vessel injury in his neck, skated in the team’s morning skate, his first time back on the ice with his teammates since the injury. He was cleared for contact last Tuesday, but missed Friday’s practice as his wife gave birth to the couple’s second daughter.

“It felt really good,” Lundqvist told a larger-than-normal throng of reporters in the Rangers’ dressing room after the skate. “It’s been a long wait for me to get out there. A lot of fun for me to see the guys, get out on the ice, and work on my game.”

Vigneault refused to give a timetable on Lundqvist’s possible return to game action, but Lundqvist said he expects to be back between the pipes by this weekend. The Rangers travel to Boston on Saturday and host the Capitals on Sunday.

Before the injury, Lundqvist had won 16 of his last 20 games, posting a 1.82 GAA and a .938 sv%.

“I think I need at least one more or two more skates, just to work on my timing,” Lundqvist said. “I feel close. If you ask me, I wanted to play last week, right away when they cleared me. But you have to be realistic about it, too.”

There was a bit of trepidation from Lundqvist’s teammates when they skated toward his net during the morning skate. That is, until the franchise netminder started stoning them – as normal.

“You could tell, first couple minutes guys were going really low on him. He’s looking really good right now,” said forward Derick Brassard. “When he made a couple good saves, the guys were trying a little harder.”

“Some guys were a little scared,” Lundqvist admitted. “They said, ‘I’m not going high today.’ But I’m fine. They can go high and hard. I’m not worried about it.”

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Seth has been covering the Rangers for Inside Hockey since 2008. Follow him on Twitter @RothmanHockey

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