Washington Capitals defenseman Brendan Witt returned to the lineup for last night's game against San Jose at MCI Center after missing four games with a shoulder sprain. Witt is one of the team's key defenders and penalty killers, and his presence could allow first-year coach Bruce Cassidy to finally establish some set defensive pairs.

Cassidy matched Witt with Jean-Francois Fortin last night, a pairing that worked well at times last season. Top defenseman Calle Johansson skated with offensive defenseman Sergei Gonchar and two of the club's tougher defensemen -- Ken Klee and Rick Berry -- were paired as well. Cassidy wants to see more bite from his defense, particularly around the crease, and that is Witt's forte.

Witt skated with the team on its weekend trip but said he felt the usual disconnect associated with an injury.

"You feel like a ghost," Witt said. "You see the guys, but you're not really there; you can't help them on the ice and you just have to watch."

Goals Well-Tended

Both of Washington's top minor league goalies, Sebastien Charpentier and Maxime Ouellet, are thriving. Charpentier has a 2-3-2 record for the Portland Pirates, with a sparkling .926 save percentage; Ouellet is 3-3 with a .935 save percentage.

Capitals starter Olaf Kolzig has played the last six straight games and is unlikely to get a rest soon, but when he does, Charpentier could be in line for another recall. . . .

Enforcer Stephen Peat remains out with a hand injury, though he could return at the end of the month. . . .

Winger Andreas Salomonsson was a healthy scratch, as was rookie defenseman Steve Eminger. Eminger, 19, had played four straight games in Witt's absence. . . .

The Capitals are asking fans to bring clean winter coats to Thursday's game as part of the team's annual Warm Hearts Coat Drive. . . .

The Capitals will honor former defenseman Rod Langway Saturday night. Langway, captain of the team for more than a decade, was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame this month. Langway twice won the Norris Trophy as the NHL's best defenseman and his number (5) was retired in 1997.