Injuries to defensemen Brendan Witt and Ken Klee have intensified the competition for the final starting job on the Washington Capitals' defense. With Witt and Klee again out of the lineup for last night's game against the Florida Panthers at MCI Center, rookies Joel Kwiatkowski and Josef Boumedienne continued to get significant ice time in a bid to remain active when the playoffs begin.

Witt missed his second straight game with a recurring rib injury. He did not participate in yesterday's morning skate and is doubtful for Thursday's game against the Ottawa Senators. Klee suffered a badly bruised foot 10 days ago in Vancouver and has missed four games. Klee is skating and might return Thursday, although the status of both players could change if Washington is already locked into a playoff spot by then, in which case they could be rested even if healthy.

Their absence has allowed Kwiatkowski and Boumedienne to get a chance to play in key games in a playoff run, auditioning for a regular job. When Witt and Klee return, Coach Bruce Cassidy is likely to reunite Klee with Sergei Gonchar and Witt with Calle Johansson, but the opportunity to play alongside Jason Doig in the third defensive pair is up for grabs.

Kwiatkowski played 20 straight games with Doig earlier in the season but his performances tailed off in March and Cassidy began experimenting with other players. Boumedienne has played just four games with Washington since being recalled from the minors, but already has scored an overtime goal and impressed the coaches with his intelligence, puck moving and the ability to ingratiate himself with a group of gifted forwards.

"They're in a battle," Cassidy said of Kwiatkowski and Boumedienne. "They're battling. . . . The upside is when those two guys [Witt and Klee] are out and they're regulars and someone else is in, then we're getting a look at them late in season which is good in that sense. Boumedienne, if we didn't have the injuries I don't know if he ever would have got here in the first place, and we may have found something that meshes better with our team."

Defenseman Rick Berry played his second straight game because of the injuries, but his style is more similar to Klee's and Witt's, and his chances of staying in the lineup when they return is minimal.

Miller Is Back

Cassidy put winger Kip Miller back in the lineup and scratched forwards Alex Henry, Stephen Peat, Josh Green and Ivan Ciernik as well as defenseman Jean-Francois Fortin. . . . Some of the best under-17 hockey players in the country are participating in national championship tournaments at The Gardens Ice House in Laurel this week. Play begins today and runs through April 6, and Thursday night at 6 p.m. a game between two teams composed of children with special needs, the Washington Ice Dogs and the St. Louis Locomotives, will take place. Several members of the Capitals' organization are participating in events tied to the competition.