MONTREAL -- The well-rested Montreal Impact will look to strengthen their grip on Major League Soccer's Eastern Conference when they head to Columbus to take on the weary Crew.
Sitting first atop the conference table with an 8-2-2 mark and 26 points, Montreal is riding a three-game winning streak in league play as it heads to the heart of Ohio on Saturday for just its second match of the month.
The Impact have a one-point lead over second-place New York and have played four fewer MLS games than the second-place Red Bulls.
They also have three games in hand on Philadelphia and Kansas City. Both have 22 points and are in a three-way tie for third with Houston, which has played two more games than Montreal.
"We really want to pad our lead a little bit," Impact defender Jeb Brovsky said after practice this week. "We want to use those games in hand to get some points and we know that you can start well but it's how you go through the summer and it's how you finish, so each game against an Eastern Conference rival has to be three points."
The Impact have been off since June 1 when they recorded a 2-1 comeback win in Kansas City, three days after winning the Voyageurs Cup in the second leg of the Amway Canadian Championship final in Vancouver.
Brovsky said the two-week break has made the team hungrier, and striker Marco Di Vaio agreed.
"We had just had good results so we wanted to keep playing, but we got a good rest and we did good work this week so we're ready for Saturday," said Di Vaio, whose nine goals in 12 games rank second in the league, one behind MLS leader Jack McInerney of Philadelphia.
Columbus lost 2-1 to Chicago in U.S. Open Cup competition Thursday. Originally scheduled to be played Wednesday night, that game was postponed to the following afternoon because of thunderstorms forecast in the vicinity of Toyota Park in Bridgeview, Ill.
So are the Crew ripe for the taking?
"I think we can't look too much into it," Brovsky said. "Obviously they're going to be ready, regardless. It can only help us that they're playing a day later but it's nothing that we're taking to our advantage too much."
The Impact, who are on their best run since opening the season with four straight wins, will be without centre back Alessandro Nesta and head coach Marco Schallibaum. Both are serving one-game suspensions.
Schallibaum was ejected for arguing a foul against Nesta that led to Kansas City's goal on the ensuing penalty kick late in the first half. Nesta was shown a red card in the second half.
Assistant coach Mauro Biello will assume coaching duties for the second time this season against the Crew.
"These things happen," said Biello, who also coached the team when Schallibaum sat out another suspension on Apr. 14 for the Impact's 1-1 home draw against Columbus. "He has total confidence is us and I think that is what's important. He lets us work, he lets us do our job and for an assistant, that's great.
"Our approach doesn't change. We're going to work the same way as if Marco was on the bench."
Di Vaio gave Montreal the lead 68 minutes into the previous meeting between the teams this season, but Dominic Oduro drew the Crew even four minutes later
"They're going to work for 90-plus minutes and they've got some guys that can just hurt you," Brovsky said. "We saw that we gave Oduro just a space in the last game and he buried a heck of a shot so we don't forget that that was points we dropped because of that goal, so we want to make sure that if we do get a lead that we shut the door pretty quickly."
Columbus has one win it its last six MLS matches. They allowed a season-high three goals in their last league game, a 3-0 loss in Philadelphia on June 5, and are eighth in the East with a 4-5-5 mark and 17 points.
"We know they have a good team with strong offensive abilities that we're going to have to be aware of but we have to rely on our qualities and stay focused for 90 minutes to do what we have to do there," Impact centre back Hassoun Camara said. "Above all we have to rely on what we know how to do and not concentrate on our opponent."
Biello is wary of putting too much stock in the Crew's struggles or their lack of rest.
"Sometimes it can be good for a team that has some rhythm to play consecutive games like that," Biello said. "We have to be ready for anything. They're a team that is going to battle to win at home."
Crew centre back Glauber suffered a knee injury in Thursday's loss, which eliminated the team from U.S. Open Cup competition.
Midfielder Eddie Gaven was lost to a season-ending injury in Columbus' previous game in the tournament. Gaven, who tied for the team lead in goals last season, tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee in a 2-1 win over the Dayton Dutch Lions on May 29.