TAMPA, Fla. (AP) Steven Stamkos grew up imagining what it would be like to hoist the Stanley Cup. Now that he and the Tampa Bay Lightning have a shot at it, the team captain says he will do whatever is necessary make it reality.
The three-time All-Star already is one of the most prolific goal scorers of his generation, but aspires to be much more. He is working to become a complete player who leads on both ends of the ice.
Kind of like Jonathan Toews does for the Chicago Blackhawks, who are chasing their third NHL championship in six years.
''You want to be like him because he's a winner,'' said Stamkos, who helped Tampa Bay reach the Stanley Cup Final for the second time in franchise history.
''Johnny is an unbelievable captain. What he's been able to do in this league is amazing. But this is bigger than the two of us,'' the Lightning star said. ''We realize what we're up again. They're one of the best teams in the league. To see what they've done the past five, six years is pretty impressive. ... He's a guy a lot of players around the league try to emulate. The fact that he plays a great game, and he's a great leader, speaks for himself.''
Make no mistake, Stamkos can stand on his own accolades.
Over the last six years, Alex Ovechkin is the only player who's scored more regular-season goals, with 256 to Stamkos' 253.
The 25-year-old Stamkos also was selected to play for Canada in the Sochi Olympics, though he missed the team's gold medal run in 2014 while recovering from a broken leg that also sidelined him for three months of the NHL season.
But what Stamkos wants more than anything else is a championship, though not necessarily because he feels to need to win a Stanley Cup to validate himself as a great player.
''You know what, I've dreamt about it for a long time,'' he said. ''Ever since I can remember comprehending what the NHL was, that's what I wanted to do as a kid. You dream of holding that Stanley Cup over your head, whether it be pond hockey or road hockey, scoring that winning goal to win the Cup. To have the chance to live out that dream is pretty cool.''
The Blackhawks lead the best-of-seven series after taking Game 1 on Wednesday night. Game 2 is Saturday.
Stamkos has also been competitive - about everything.
''Even running up the stairs with my sister as a kid, that was a race. ... I want to win at everything I do,'' Stamkos said. ''At the gym, who can lift the most weight. Who can run the fastest around the track. Softball, golf, everything I do, I want to win. I want this so bad. Everyone who knows me knows that. And I will do whatever it takes.''
Teammates and opponents have taken notice of the evolution of Stamkos' game.
''He's a talented player, one of the best goal-scorers of our time,'' Chicago's Brent Seabrook said.
''Being able to watch him a little bit, not playing him too much (with him) being in the east, but watching in the playoffs, he's rounded out his game,'' Seabrook added. ''He's playing both ends of the rink real well. He still has that offensive touch, being able to put the puck in the net, so you have to be aware of that. But he's playing both ends of the rink and doing a lot of the little things out there that make teams successful.''
While playing a Stanley Cup Final may be the ultimate for Stamkos as a player, he also relishes that the opportunity comes against a star-studded team led by Toews and Patrick Kane, who Stamkos played against in junior hockey.
''I'll definitely do whatever it takes to win, whether I'm the captain or not,'' Stamkos said. ''I've played with some great leaders and learned from them. Willingness to block a shot. Willingness to take a hit. Whatever you have to do to give your bench a little bit of life. This is the end-all and be-all for a hockey player, and you have to make sacrifices.''