Remember the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico? Well, imagine that the Washington Capitals are the Gulf of Mexico, and that Almighty God's unquenchable thirst for chaos is the oil rig.
This is where the Swiss cheese model of causation comes in. (Stay with me.) At the risk of oversimplifying, the Swiss cheese model illustrates the idea that even carefully designed systems will fail under a perfectly terrible set of circumstances. With the BP oil spill, that perfectly terrible set of circumstances included personnel failures, multiple mechanical failures, and bad risk management decisions all converging at the same moment -- without any one of which the oil spill doesn't happen.
Likewise, the Capitals' season-long slow burn hasn't been caused by a single thing. There was the unfathomably long (and long-running) slew of injuries. There was plain old bad luck on the ice. There were long stretches where the team's top stars simply didn't produce (dating back to the January 6 loss to Nashville, Alex Ovechkin has scored three goals in his last 13 games). And that doesn't even account for self-inflicted wounds like the team's lukewarm power play (currently ranked 14th in the league).
Back in October, this convergence of circumstances would have been wildly unlikely -- but it happened. Expecting an equally opposite phenomenon -- i.e., all these circumstances happily reverse at full speed at the same time -- would be no less unlikely.
All of which means it's time to face the reality that a postseason berth is wildly unlikely and get ready to try again in 2023-24.
Russian Machine Never Breaks argues persuasively that the Capitals should accept their fate and begin selling off their many expiring contracts before the March 3 deadline. I won't try to add anything, except this: it is possible to both (1.) maximize the team's slim chances of another Stanley Cup run in the Ovechkin era's final years and (2.) lay the groundwork to minimize the pain of a post-Ovechkin rebuild. Dumping expiring contracts for young players and draft picks would allow Washington to do both by stocking the prospects pool while also rebooting the Capitals' defense.