NHL Winners and losers, Week 9: Jack Eichel lifts Sabres; Coyotes leave Smith out to dry

This week in hockey, the NHL gave us another excellent rookie, a slew of injuries, and a number of risers and fallers.

Let’s begin with a riser.

Rising: Jack Eichel

Jack Eichel’s outstanding return to the ice is really no surprise. After months of being sidelined due to an ankle injury, the Buffalo Sabres 2015 first-round pick is proving he’s worth all the hype.

In his first game back, Eichel scored both a goal and assist. He then tacked on a pair of goals two nights later. Through four games, the 20-year-old has already tallied four points. His return has clearly boosted the previously slumping Sabres, who have won four of their last six games. Not only have they won, but they’ve beaten some pretty impressive teams, including the New York Rangers.

The NHL has an exceptional crop of rookies this year, and it seems Eichel fits right in.

Falling: Jonathon Toews

The Buffalo Sabres got their superstar back, but the Chicago Blackhawks are still missing theirs.

Blackhawks captain Jonathon Toews remains sidelined with a back injury suffered during a game against the San Jose Sharks back on November 23. Despite sitting out six games, Toews’ injury is reportedly not showing signs of improvement. The 28-year-old is Chicago’s best face-off man and has 12 points through 21 games.

Toews’ injury probably isn’t going to sink the Hawks’ season, but it’s certainly not going to help. Chicago also has to deal with the temporary absence of goaltender Corey Crawford, so it’s safe to say injuries haven’t been kind to the Blackhawks this week.

Rising: Mike Smith

The Blackhawks might be suffering a bit of a goaltender crisis, but the Arizona Coyotes are far from having the same problem.

Goaltender Mike Smith has been a bright spot in the Coyotes’ dreadful first quarter of hockey. Smith shone especially bright Saturday night against the Columbus Blue Jackets. The Coyotes’ goalie stopped 57 shots, breaking a franchise record for most saves in the process. Smith has made 40 or more saves in three of the Coyotes’ past four games.

Falling: Arizona Coyotes

Smith is on the rise. His team — not so much.

The Coyotes’ goaltender practically stood on his head Saturday night. He made every save possible, attempting to keep his team in the game. And despite the Blue Jackets recording 60 shots throughout 60 minutes, the game still went to a shootout (the Coyotes lost, if you couldn’t guess).

This team completely left its goaltender out to dry. Smith had the performance of a lifetime, and the rest of his teammates did nothing to support him. If the Coyotes have a goalie like this, and the team still can’t manage to win a game, I don’t know if it’s possible to turn the season around.