Thornton/By S. Bradley

Prior to the start of the 2011 Stanley Cup playoffs, I picked the Washington Capitals and San Jose Sharks to emerge from their respective conferences once three rounds were through.

Well, one of those highly regarded teams is still alive. So there’s no doubt I am picking the Sharks to meet the Bruins the 2011 Stanley Cup Final by downing Vancouver in the Western Conference Final, which starts tonight.

Despite a steep challenge from the Presidents’ Trophy-winning Canucks, I have no second thoughts about my pick. That the Sharks were pushed to seven games by Detroit in the previous round only speaks to San Jose’s new-found grit and desire. Much like the Bruins, the Sharks have been haunted by numerous playoff failures of the past and have been conquering them left and right since the start of the postseason.

Regardless of which games were won prior to Game 7, defeating Detroit in a series that goes the distance is always a major character-building experience. I believe that the lessons San Jose learned in that series are more important than any rest the Sharks could’ve gotten by closing their series out earlier. And the Canucks only got a couple more days rest before this series.

“I think there’s always some carryover,” San Jose defenseman Ian White told the media this morning. “You’ve got to build on positives that you’ve done in the past. From the first series to the second series, we’ve done some great things. We’ve had a few setbacks as well to grow on. Hopefully we’ll get stronger as we move forward.”

Truly, these two teams are even on paper. Maybe you give the Canucks and Roberto Luongo a slight edge in goal. But both teams have a multi-talented defense and forward corps, complete with a great mix of speed, skill and grit.

This series is going to come down to which star players shine brightest. Anyone that saw Joe Thornton play in Game 7 against the Red Wings knows he’s on a mission. That his much-criticized linemate Patrick Marleau also awoke from a playoffs-long slumber should held as well against the Canucks.

My pick: Sharks in 6.