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  1. Lightning

Lightning: The secret's out. Vladislav Namestnikov is on fire

TAMPA — The Russian wing darted into the slot during the third period of the Lightning's win Thursday in L.A.

He instinctively ripped a rebound off the top-right corner crossbar into the net. Bar down. It was a goal scorer's goal.

"It looked like Kuch," Fox Sports Sun analyst Brian Engblom said.

Only it wasn't Nikita Kucherov. It was linemate Vladislav Namestnikov, who shouldn't be the forgotten man on the Lightning's dominant top line.

Namestnikov scored Sunday for the fourth time in the Lightning's three-game California sweep. His nine goals are one shy of last season's total. He might be playing the best hockey of his career.

You thought stopping Kucherov and Steven Stamkos was tough enough? Now Namestnikov is rolling.

"Obviously (Namestnikov) might fly under the radar on our line," Stamkos said. "But he's a huge piece. When he can be a threat to score, that just adds another element.

"Teams are having a difficult time defending us because everyone is a threat out on the ice. It's great to see him have success because he's earned it."

Stamkos and Kucherov own the headlines. The duo is No. 1 and No. 2 in the NHL in scoring. But associate coach Rick Bowness said, like many of the all-time duos, they don't work as well without a third partner. One who has the elite hockey mind — and speed —- to hang with elite scorers. One who is responsible defensively, especially when the others are up in the rush.

Stamkos points out Namestnikov is a second center on their line, which takes pressure off him, both in faceoffs and his own end.

"In order to be successful, you have to have guys that have the ability to understand their roles and Namestnikov has been outstanding with these guys," said NHL Network analyst Alex Tanguay, a former Lightning wing. "Giving them touches, giving them lanes to shoot, driving the net, making simple plays that allows those guys to play freely. And when those guys play freely and with confidence, good things are happening and that line is dynamite."

What Namestnikov has added more recently is aggressiveness. Namestnikov's 44 shots are already about 40 percent of last season's total (114). He has points in 14 of the team's 18 games.

"You've got to get over the fact of who you are playing with first," coach Jon Cooper said. "And then you have to accept the fact you do belong with that group.

"What I like about Vladdy and he's still not quite there yet but he's shooting pucks now. You've got to be around the net and shoot pucks to score goals in this league, and that's what he's doing. It's paying off."

It paid off in Sunday's 2-1 win at Anaheim as Namestnikov — positioned around the crease — put in a rebound in the second period. Namestnikov said his comfort level with his line has helped him in his hot start, how they understand each other.

Namestnikov's skill shouldn't be shocking. He's a former first-round pick, taken 27th in 2011 NHL draft — 31 selections before Kucherov.

"I always thought Vladdy is a good player, but he never really had a chance to play on the top line," Kucherov said. "And right now, you see he's building confidence. I thought he should have been up there a lot earlier."

Namestnikov couldn't have picked better timing. He's scheduled to be a restricted free agent next summer.

Is this his best stretch of hockey yet?

"It's hard to say," Namestnikov said, smiling. "I try not to think about it too much, just try to play the game the same way I've always played, just help contribute to the team and do my best."

Joe Smith can be reached at Follow @TBTImes_JSmith.