Sampo Ranta spent last summer back home in Finland sharpening his game, becoming stronger, bigger, faster, more skilled.

All the better for putting the struggling Gophers men’s hockey team on his back this season.

“I feel way better now than I did last year,” Ranta said. “I feel like I have more impact in the game this year. I’ve got the ability to really carry our team.”

The top-six sophomore winger was the Gophers’ leading goal scorer in the first half of the season before leaving for the Czech Republic where Finland finished fourth in the world junior championship. He used the Michigan State series two weeks ago to re-acclimate himself and will now look to help his Gophers against Big Ten-leading Ohio State on Friday and Saturday nights at 3M Arena at Mariucci.

The Buckeyes are the No. 6 team in the country and a team the Gophers have a habit of playing close. Of the six meetings since last season, four have gone to overtime while the other two were one-goal margins. Ranta has two goals and an assist in those games.

Overall this season, Ranta has seven goals and four assists, already surpassing his freshman goal total of six.

Gophers coach Bob Motzko said Ranta has used his 6-2, 205-pound frame to be more physical this season, which has made him harder for opponents to play.

“This has been a big year for him. He’s really starting to understand his strengths of size and his puck protection and how he takes pucks to the hole and how he can play a heavy, hard game,” Motzko said. “When you’re young, you play a skilled, loose game. … He’s understanding the harder he plays, the more he takes it into tough areas, he has success. He can’t be stopped. He’s too big and strong.”

That’s something his teammates have noticed as well. Sammy Walker, who played with Ranta in the USHL, said he could tell upon first meeting Ranta how seriously he took hockey, something Motzko also praised. Fellow sophomore Blake McLaughlin called Sampo’s shot “unbelievable,” while linemate Brannon McManus said Ranta’s build, speed and all-around skill combine for an “incredible” result.

“He’s starting to figure it out,” McManus said. “He’s starting to take control of games and being that force that we all know he can be.”

Just like he’s developing on the ice, Ranta also has had to adjust off it. He moved away from Finland at age 15 and has been in the U.S. for about four years now, but “European” is still the first word that came to mind for McManus when trying to describe “Shampoo.” Ranta said his teammates mostly tease him about his sense of style, though he claims to be one of the more fashionable Gophers.

Ranta made the quick switch in August ahead of last season to play for the Gophers instead of Wisconsin, deciding just three days before he came to campus. And going from playing in the USHL to having to balance hockey with college school work was a challenge at first. His English is pretty much perfect, but Ranta still learns new words every day. Like just Tuesday, McLaughlin shared how Ranta had to answer the question “What color crayon would you be if you were a crayon?” in their communications class. Ranta turned to McLaughlin confused and whispered, “What’s a crayon?”

Once McLaughlin explained it’s like a marker, Ranta decided on blue, because that’s his favorite color.

The 19-year-old seems to gain confidence with each passing day, and the Gophers will need to tap into that if they want a shot at making the NCAA tournament. Ranta said he wants to lead the team to that goal.

“Help my team to win as many games as we can and go for a run,” Ranta said. “We have a big second half, and we want to go all the way. Why not us?”